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Bencab comes home

National Artist conferred with honorary doctorate.


Bencab with Regent Emmanuel
Angeles and partner Annie Sarthou

It was a homecoming of sorts for National Artist Benedicto “Bencab” Cabrera June 19 when the University of the Philippines conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

The College of Music’s Abelardo Hall was decked in its finest for the ceremonies, led by the University’s highest officials, deans and representatives from the academic units at UP Diliman. And before a crowd of students, admirers and members of his family, Bencab received the honors for his outstanding work as an artist, philanthropist and advocate.

The university’s highest academic honors were given Bencab for his “incisive contributions in Philippine Art,” his role as “prime mover of artists groups” and his “pioneering work to uphold the cultural wellbeing of the country’s indigenous peoples.”

Bencab left the University in 1963 short of finishing his degree of Fine Arts, majoring in Illustration, to help support his family. It was the ultimate roadblock among the many that he experienced as the youngest among nine siblings in the one of the poorer parts of Malabon, where even as a child, he was already drawing portraits for a fee.

And while this would’ve stopped most others from pursuing their craft, Bencab was fortunate enough to have had the support of his eight older siblings as well as the wealth of knowledge imparted upon him by such luminaries as Napoleon Abueva, José Joya and Carlos Perez Valino, Jr., who were his professors at the UP College of Fine Arts.

One of his first jobs was as an illustrator for Liwayway Publications, where he worked with people like Ang Kiukok and Alfredo Roces. He later took job with the United States Information Service as a layout artist, followed by stints at Mirror Magazine and the Sunday Times Magazine.

In 1966, he held his first solo exhibition at the Gallery Indigo in Mabini, where he introduced the iconic subject Sabel, a madwoman and scavenger which would dominate and permeate throughout his creative life.

Marriage to British writer Caroline Kennedy relocated Bencab to London, where he found fame and fortune, eventually earning a reputation as one of if not the well-received painter of his generation of Filipino artists.

It was in Europe that he found a collection of vintage Filipiniana photos which would later inspire the first of several exhibitions. The Larawan series was a bold, thought provoking “running commentary on the Philippine present.” It was a landmark in Philippine Art.

Cid Reyes best described it when he said “Bencab’s trenchant gift for illuminating contemporary times is shown in the evolution of the Larawan works into images of Filipinos as exiles, deracinated creatures seeking their place in distant lands, impelled by artistic and economic exigencies. Brought into sharper focus by Bencab’s scalpel–sharp pen, were the overseas Filipino workers, notably the domestic helps, scoring points against our country’s economic condition.”

After several years in exile due to Martial Law, he came back to the Philippines just in time for the 1986 EDSA Revolution, after which he settled in Baguio, engrossed in the culture and art of the Cordillera. The next year he joined a small group of established artists that included filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and Santi Bose, forming the Baguio Arts Guild (BAG).

In the aftermath of the 1991 earthquake that left the city devastated not just physically, the BAG instituted several programs such as ArtAid (a workshop for traumatized children) and Artquake (a fund-raising art auction) to help the city and its people rebuild.

BenCab later on had a crucial hand in creating the Tam-awan Artists Village, a cultural preserve and living museum showcasing the beauty of traditional Ifugao, Kaling and Bontoc architecture. It is owned by the Chanum Foundation, Inc., of which he is also the head.

It is a residential community for many Baguio-based artists, and holds several continuing exhibits for its resident and other local artists. It also hosts several workshops for various groups that include streetchildren and students, teaching skills such as drawing, traditional crafts and instruments.

It was in recognition of these and his other achievements that the Philippine government bestowed upon him the title of National Artist for the Visual Arts in 2006.

In the face of all this, BenCab remains humble, self-effacing even as he accepted the honorary degree.

“One word of caution however, should you call me by my formal title, I might not readily respond, as it will no doubt take a while before I get used to the name Dr. Bencab,” he jests.


With Bencab are UP President Emerlinda R. Roman (left), UPD Chancellor
Sergio S. Cao, and witnessed by the Board of Regents, Bencab's partner Annie
Sarthou (in scarf) and the honoree's siblings.

He also recounted how his latest contribution to Philippine Art, the BenCab Museum, started as a habit of collecting Cordillera artifacts that gradually grew into a collection that was too big not to be shared.

“This is the reason why the BenCab Museum was built on my farmland retreat – to house my collection of Philippine contemporary art and Cordillera artifacts. While I lent my name to the museum, it is, in fact, a monument to the greatness of our culture, and my pride in being an artist and Filipino,” he said.

Situated on a four-hectare property in Asin, a town six kilometers south of Baguio, it is home not only to his artworks and personal collection of Filipino masters but also some of the best artifacts of Cordilleran culture and history.

It is a main beneficiary of the Bencab Art Foundation, of which he is the main founder. It is a non-stock organization that supports activities related to the arts and environment.

Bencab left the University an undergraduate, but took with him and embodied the spirit of nationalism, excellence and service that are at the heart of UP’s values.

— Anna Kristin Regidor