Interview with Filipino National Artist BenCab: ‘I touched humanism in my art’

Community News & Features Aug 24, 2017 at 5:05 pm
Benedicto ‘BenCab’ Cabrera (Photo: Rappler)

Benedicto ‘BenCab’ Cabrera (Photo: Rappler)

Interview with PH’s 2006 National Artist BenCab

By Michelle Chermaine Ramos

Renowned artist Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera was conferred the Order of National Artist for Visual Arts by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006. A collectors’ favorite, BenCab is known as the best-selling painter of his generation of Filipino artists with collectors scrambling to buy his works in advance before they are even completed. He built his own museum, the BenCab Museum, which has become a popular tourist destination in Baguio exhibiting his personal collection of his own work along with that of other artists.

He recently visited Toronto for a family reunion and had a cocktail reception organized by the University of the Philippines Alumni Association and The Philippine Artists Group of Canada at The Miller Tavern in North York on August 2, 2017. It was a wonderful privilege to chat with one of the Philippines’s greatest artists. Here, the living legend shares his thoughts on his humble beginnings, art as a social commentary and his advice on never compromising on your artistic vision.

Three Women, 2009

Three Women, 2009

Michelle Chermaine Ramos: Being a national artist, what do you think it was about the way you approached your work in particular that led to you being nominated by your peers? What did you do differently that some of your peers might not have done?

Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera: Somehow, a lot of buyers like my work. There are some works that are saleable and some that are not but I guess I’m really lucky in that sense. I’m just being consistent. My work really is an expression of our field and the subject matter is very Filipino. I guess because I touched humanism in my art, I sort of tried to search for our identity and started doing Filipiniana. I was trying to make a parallelism between the past and the present. Like, I have a painting called Servant Girl, which is 19th century. During my time, it was called domestic helper, now it’s called OFW. What I’m saying is there’s not much change in our servitude. So, it’s an investigation of how we grow as Filipinos. It’s a social commentary.

MR: Did you get any opposition from your parents when you decided to pursue fine arts?

BC: Yes. Well, I was influenced by my brother who’s thirteen years older than me who’s a painter and started liking to draw myself. But at one time my father was saying “Even if you give me that painting, I won’t accept it.” He really discouraged me but when I was winning already and selling my work, that was the time he really appreciated me.

MR: What was the turning point in your life that made you decide to push through with it despite the pressure?

Soldiers (Heroes of the Past IV), 1998

Soldiers (Heroes of the Past IV), 1998

BC: I took up advertising in UP and worked as an artist/illustrator for the Sunday Times Magazine. The turning point was when I was invited to exhibit with two other friends at the PAP, which is the organization of Filipino artists. I sold all my works and said this is not a bad start and maybe I should pursue it. So, I resigned from the Sunday Times and decided to be a full-time painter.

MR: Do you remember your earliest work or commission as an artist?

BC: Well, since I was really a kid, around seven years old. But when I was in elementary, I won an award – first prize for a poster contest. I remember getting a hundred pesos for that (laughs). It was about human rights.

MR: What advice do you have for young people who want to go into the arts who are facing a lot of discouragement from their parents like you did?

BC: If you really love your work, I mean it really should be a passion and just continue whether you sell your work or not. It’s a thing that you love to do so just kind of pursue your idea.

MR: What odd jobs did you have before you became a fulltime painter?

BenCab with the Philippine Artists Group of Canada.  From left: Alex Gonzalez, Jun Afable, Omel Masalunga, Frank Cruzet, Michelle Chermaine, BenCab, Romi MananQuil, Jhun Ciolo Diamante, Gene Lopos, and Teody Asuncion.           (Photo provided)

BenCab with the Philippine Artists Group of Canada. From left: Alex Gonzalez, Jun Afable, Omel Masalunga, Frank Cruzet, Michelle Chermaine, BenCab, Romi MananQuil, Jhun Ciolo Diamante, Gene Lopos, and Teody Asuncion.
(Photo provided)

BC: I remember selling comics when there were lots of Tagalog comics and going house to house selling. I was also doing some portraits of Elvis Presley and James Dean and selling them to my classmates in my first year in college in 1959. I wish I could get a hold of one.

MR: Since art is a business, what do you think it is that you did over the years that led to your success in business?

BC: When I went to London this was when I met my wife and it’s quite a big exposure for me to see how things are growing in the art world. It helped me a lot. It’s just a matter of not really thinking about painting to sell but painting what you like and if they love your work, that’s a bonus.

Just draw and don’t worry too much about how you can be successful and all that. In my case, I didn’t have to really do it the hard way but as a strategy, maybe do it in a position that you do it in the right place at the right time and opportunities come. And when opportunities come, you grab them. It will come. Some people will notice your work and like it. Like when I had a show in Hawaii at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the curator of that museum saw my work in Manila and asked for me to exhibit there. It was really by chance.

MR: Would you say that it’s better to paint what you like regardless of whether or not you think it will sell?

BC: Yes, definitely! Because that’s how you express yourself. That’s how you feel and you don’t compromise just because somebody wants a painting of a landscape or something. If you don’t do landscapes, you don’t have to do it.

MR: In this modern age where almost anything is passing off as art in museums like one incident when a gallery exhibited cans of an artist’s poop, in your opinion, where do you draw the line to weed out sensationalism to determine what should be considered real art these days? Since you’re an artist and art collector yourself, in your opinion, what criteria should something meet to be considered real art?

BC: Yeah, many artists now are doing what’s never done before like someone who just showed their unmade bed and became famous for that. You don’t draw the line because artists keep on trying new ideas and new statements and it’s how they want to be noticed, like Damien Hirst. He doesn’t have to paint. It’s really more in the concept. Like Manzoni was able to do sell canned shit. I saw it in a museum and it’s funny because sometimes you have art like a urinal and it’s being shown in a museum. So it’s really a kind of statement that they think is relevant to society. I’m really more of a traditional artist. I always observe and what I observe about us, that’s what I portray. When I had a show in New York called Aftermath, that was because of my experience during the big earthquake in Baguio and these are the things that I express.

MR: You have anitos in your museum. Would you say that you’ve delved into indigenous Filipino spirituality?

BC: Yes, because it’s really a personal museum so what I exhibit is my personal choice. I wanted a museum that doesn’t just show my work but other contemporary artists and also our tribal art which is underrated compared to let’s say African tribal art or Indonesian. So a lot of Filipinos are surprised to see such a rich source of art, which is original. Tribal art is original. The santos were really imported from Europe, you know, from Spain. So I concentrated on that because I concentrated on Filipiniana.

MR: Who were your mentors and what was the best piece of advice you ever received?

BC: Encouragement. When I met Manansala and he saw my work and he encouraged me. I also do that with young artists when they show me their work. If they have big potential, I encourage them. If there’s no potential, I just have no comment (laughs).

MR: Is there a book that influenced your art?

BC: When I was in London, I liked the literary and narrative works I saw there so some of my works have some narrative stories to tell. I like the book by Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart.

MR: Looking back over the years and all the wisdom you acquired with your experience, what things would you do differently?

BC: Having tapestries, trying to venture into something new in terms of medium like sculptures, photography – you don’t limit yourself.

MR: What is your motto?

BC: Do what you can do in this lifetime.

MR: What do you most want to be remembered for?

BC: My museum. That’s why I set up my museum to leave it behind. In the end, what you leave behind is your worth.