In search of the miraculous
Carina Santos (The Philippine Star) - November 13, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – After years of planning and archiving, Roberto Chabet is finally here. The eponymous book — 432 pages of a painstakingly condensed history — was edited by Ringo Bunoan and includes essays by Ronald Achacoso, Lena Cobangbang, Cocoy Lumbao, and Carina Evangelista, among others.

It isn’t a typical art book, bound of the coffee table — it is made up of tiny little pieces, thoughtfully arranged and presented. It is, in all aspects, a labor of love. There is an obvious understanding of Chabet’s work, an enduring love and respect for it. His work is presented as intended by the artist, or as closely as possible to the way he wanted them to be seen. In one of the essays, Bunoan writes about Bakawan, a large-scale installation of mangrove branches suspended from the ceiling and arranged into a grid. Though it was recently recreated for an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, its original incarnation was displayed in a very specific manner, to be viewed from one side of a glass door, which had its handle removed, to rid the scene of horizontal lines. This volume allows you to look at Sir, similarly, unobstructed though viewed through many lenses, hopefully arriving at a clear portrait of someone that most people have come to know as a legend.

I have never been mentored by Sir Chabet. I remember “meeting” him first only through family prayer circles when we would ask for the recovery of one of my parents’ friends, Bobby Chabet, from a stroke. The name stuck with me, but it wasn’t until much later that I made the connection. I grew up with very little interest in pursuing art, thinking of myself as a writer. I knew that I liked to read, that I was a pretty decent writer, and that I couldn’t, didn’t know how to draw or paint. Both my parents went to UPFA, something I didn’t even attempt because it just didn’t occur to me that it was a possibility. By the time I went to college, he had stopped teaching, anyway.

Dutch paintings

So it was when I had settled on information design as my major, that I encountered the first Chabet shows that captured my attention: Dutch Paintings at both West Gallery and Finale at Megamall in 2006 and 10,000 Paintings I Must Paint Before I Die at Magnet Katipunan in 2009. Encounters with his work made you feel a visceral connection. They made you feel like maybe you had something to say, and that it was worth making known. That technical skill was maybe irrelevant if you knew how to tell your story in the best way. I can’t quite explain why I sought his approval — perhaps because one knew how much it meant and how it wasn’t thoughtlessly given away — but when I received it, I clung to it and folded it up to keep with me, always.

The book is endlessly fascinating, much like the artist himself. It is a peek into Chabet’s life as an artist, a teacher, and perhaps most importantly, as a person.  At the book launch at Mo_Space last week, Ringo made a short introductory speech, and I wondered briefly what it was like to face grief every day as she was working on the book. Prior to his passing in 2013, Ringo had been archiving his ouevre for Asia Art Archive. But she said she made it because she didn’t want to forget, and so that the rest of us would be able to remember him, too.

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