“You have to evolve, or else you get stuck.”
Benedicto Reyes Cabrera
Benedicto Reyes Cabrera
The Philippine artist Benedicto Reyes Cabrera aka BenCab has an almost rock star status in his home country especially after being proclaimed a National artist in 2006 and the establishment of his own museum in the mountains next door the premier summer city destination of Baguio in 2009. Like many Filipinos he spent many years living and working overseas but, unlike the majority, Cabrera used the time to refine his art rather than being employed as the hired help.
As he told PhilippineI went to London to get away from the old, and to see what was new with the world. At that time the big thing was minimalism, flat squares. I thought, why should I jump on the bandwagon of what’s current? It wasn’t my culture.
LarawanCid Reyes described as “images of Filipinos as exiles, deracinated creatures seeking their place in distant lands, impelled by artistic and economic exigencies.”
I started the “Larawan” series in 1972. I was buying a lot of Filipiniana books in London with old photographs from the colonial era. I was showing the parallelism between the past and present... When I showed the “Larawan” series here [Manila] in 1972, it was a big hit. Most people thought it was about nostalgia, but it’s actually commentary, my personal feelings about what was happening with martial law. But I think, beyond that, what I was really trying to show was my skill as a painter.”
The youngest of nine children Cabrera grew up in humble surroundings in the sprawling city of Manila and was introduced to art by his elder bother Salvador, an establish artist. A deft hand with a pencil the young Cabrera was able to earn pocket money by providing the drawings for class mates assignments.
After dropping out of the University of the Philippines’ (U.P.) College of Fine Arts to work as a commercial artist which included a two stint as a lay-out artist for the United States Information Service, the 22-year-old Cabrera discovered his iconic muse, Sabel.
As he explained “I would see the derelict woman who would become “Sabel” when I was still living in Yakal Street [his parents home]. I saw her only from a distance. I didn’t have any interaction with her, but I would do a lot of quick sketches of her from life, mabilis lang (snap), parang (like) abstract. When I moved to Malate, I lost track of her but I would continue to paint her from memory.”
A point he elaborated upon to the Wall Street Journal stating “Sabel started as a symbol of the oppressed and conditions of the country where we have a lot of poor people. In the beginning, she was social commentary... It became my icon.”
Cabrera is also a lifelong collector, from comic books as child to Santos (statues of Spanish colonial saints) in his twenties which he sold to finance his move to London. He currently has one of the largest collections of Northern Philippine tribal objects, hundreds of Filipino works of contemporary photography, painting and sculpture and Filipiniana that concentrates on postcards, photos and maps.
As he has said “In the 1970s, when I was living in London, we started dealing in these things... We rented a stall in a flea market. This is where I met other collectors and I started concentrating on Filipiniana. Then you could get maps of the Philippines for cheap. My first map I got in Rome for a dollar. Now it is worth about 35,000 pesos ($755). It dates from 1575.”
The housing and display of his collections as well as his art was the inspiration to build his own museum.
As he says “I want to put some of my things in a proper setting... I want to display other things aside from my own work for people to admire, so I have tribal art and contemporary art.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Manila currently has the retrospective exhibition BenCab: The Filipino Artist on show until the 27th of February and Manila’s Yuchengco Museum is showing BenCab in Two Movements until the 16th of January.