MANILA, Philippines — Proclaimed a National Artist for Visual Arts in 2006 and declared by lovers of heritage, culture and the arts as the country’s best selling painter of his generation, Benedicto Cabrera, better known as BenCab, is a big man. And by that, I don’t just mean he’s built big – which he is – but that he has a lot in him, of him, to give. Unlike other artists, he is not very cavalier about giving remarks, and in that sense, he is very careful, very deliberate about what he says.
Another writer has written of him as perhaps the only Filipino artist who can be considered a celebrity: Even those who are not so immersed in the visual arts know him by name or even by face, and when someone mentions the phrase Filipino painter, BenCab is one of the names that comes to mind, immediately after Fernando Amorsolo.
But over coffee at the sprawling greens of the BenCab Museum, in the rain, we talk at length about topics that go beyond his fame. Like his growing penchant for gardening and farming and his dedication to a school nearby, for instance, and making sure he’s always on good terms with his farmhands – so much so that some of them are his scholars while others even model for him when he’s painting.
He does make certain that his love affair with his land comes across, almost as much as his love for the museum itself. And this means a whole lot, given that the museum is a 1,200-square meter, multi-level labor of love and creativity, each floor housing an awesome showcase as precious as those on the other floors – be it a collection of bul’uls BenCab himself has become famous for, marvelous works by modern masters and contemporary artists and even the erotica.
In this rare opportunity, we get a glimpse of BenCab unplugged — that is, BenCab relaxed, at home and unguarded. It is a more carefree BenCab with whom we had an eye-opener of a chat, in the garden he loves.Here are some excerpts.
In a nutshell, what is the creative process like for you?
I visualize it in my mind. Sometimes it just comes to me – at night, even in the afternoon, when I am not painting. And when it comes, I think about it intensely – almost as if I were in a trance while painting.
So, you don’t paint in the afternoon?
I like to work with natural light. In the afternoon, the light is not so good. Not to mention that I look forward to my siesta whenever I can. Unless of course I have a deadline to meet!
What year did you start painting?
I started painting at a young age but it was in 1966 that I painted professionally. I didn’t get to keep my early works. When you’re young and starting a career, you sell whenever you have the opportunity. I was able to buy one small painting back, though. It was a 1967 work, and I paid a lot for it. On the back of the frame was a Gallery Indigo label. It was the Malate gallery I owned with my friends in the ‘60s, where we first sold that same painting for P500. I couldn’t believe it!
Do you always bring a sketchbook?
I do bring a sketchbook but there are situations when it is not practical to draw. There was a time we went to Tubbataha Reef where I did my first dive. A sketchbook is no good there! It’s easier to bring a camera and just take photographs. So I bring one with me all the time, I can’t leave home without it. Wherever I am in the world, I have a camera with me, to document whatever I see that interests me.
How do you react when fans want to approach you?
When I’m around the museum, people approach me all the time, to have photos taken with me. I can be very accommodating. I used to be shy. When I was young I was timid and shy in school. Even my school report card said so. I’ve overcome it now.
Why have you chosen Baguio to be your home?
I lived in London for 13 years, where it was cool, foggy, and rainy. Baguio reminded me of the weather in London. I was lucky when I came back to the Philippines because a cousin of mine had a house in Baguio, which he offered me. They were going to migrate, and they thought the house might as well go to me. So I bought the house and lot. This was in ‘86. Hulugan pa, eh. I got lucky, and I started to work right away and built a studio.
What about the bul’ul that enchants you so much?
We’re so used to our santos which were introduced to us by the Europeans. Very few people realize that our bul’ul is very original. It is underrated. My interest in it also comes from my fascination with tribal art. It’s a pity that foreign collectors appreciate our primitive art more than we do.
This fascination led you to putting up the museum?
I was inspired when I went to Indonesia, particularly to Bali and Bandung, by the artists there who had their own museums exclusively for their work. But I’m a collector of so many things. I wanted my pieces to be properly displayed. By building the museum, I was putting up a place, not only where I could show my own work, but also the rest of my collection of Philippine contemporary art, as well as primitive tribal art from the north. I want to leave something behind, a legacy.
How do you choose which works of the masters and which of your contemporaries to exhibit?
When (National Artist) Arturo Luz established the Luz Gallery in the 60s, he chose to exhibit the artists that he personally liked. It was his personal decision. The BenCab Museum was put up to house my own personal collection. Sometimes, people ask, “Why don’t you have a certain artist in the museum collection?” It’s really a personal choice. It also has to do with what I could afford to buy in the past. I would always buy young artists’ works and continue to do so.
The BenCab Art Foundation, which runs the museum, has also been adding to the collection whenever possible. It is a way of upgrading and expanding the collection. The Erotica Gallery in particular has had many additions to it and has become much larger. We also have a changing gallery, where we put up a new exhibition every couple of months. We receive proposals for exhibitions from artists and the foundation studies the proposals and decides whether to show them in the museum or not. It is a collective decision and we need to be consistent.
I collect many things, including stones, shells, photographs, old books, bonsai. I’m what you would call a magpie.
What is usually your role when you get invited to art-related engagements and events all over the world?
I have been invited to exhibit in galleries abroad and to do art residencies. I’m very often asked to participate in fund-raising events and to give lectures. Recently, I attended the San Francisco Philippine International Book Festival as one of the National Artists invited to be guests of honor.
How is it being a National Artist?
Being a National Artist means more responsibility and more work, really. I am busier than I ever used to be. I am always asked to judge competitions and cut ribbons at art openings. And I am invited to give lectures, which I have never been comfortable doing.
When I was asked to be the guest speaker at the commencement exercise of the Gilbert Semon Elementary School, I agreed, because it is our foundation’s pet project. When the school needed an additional classroom for their growing student population, our foundation built it for them, using part of the proceeds from an exhibition I had in the museum. It was a community effort and the students, teachers, and some Baguio artists helped paint the classroom using paint that Boysen had donated.
Besides painting, it seems you like to garden?
When I’m not painting, I’m likely to be in the garden, trimming my bonsai. I enjoying planting trees and watching them grow. I walk down to the river, cross the hanging bridge and walk up the mountain across the museum, for about an hour. It’s 150 steps down, and 360 steps up. It calms me, soothes my mind. Nature does that to me.
In the farm, I plant whatever grows well — coffee, corn, strawberries, vegetables and herbs. Because we have an abundance of running water, watercress is plentiful. There was one summer when we planted different varieties of tomatoes, using seeds a friend gave us from France. We had a surplus so we sold some of the harvest and the rest we kept for our personal consumption. The farm is not really something I can earn from. In the end, it’s more about aesthetics. The way it’s laid out, the combination of colors, whatever pleases my eye. Even the aviary adds some color to the farm.
I’m just happy that the farm and gardens are appreciated by enthusiasts — whether of art or nature in general. Being someone who cares about nature, ecology, and the environment, I can’t complain about my situation. I can go on and on about farming and gardening. It’s my passion.