BenCab: The Man and His Museum


BenCab Museum as seen from the forest viewpoint where Ecotrail ends
Nestled in between two mountains with a stream that runs through them lies the BenCab Museum, a transparent piece of architecture made of massive glass curtains that house the personal collection of art, antiques and artifacts of National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Reyes Cabrera (b.1942) or BenCab (conferred the Order of National Artist in 2006). The museum located on Km 6 Asin Road, Tuba, Benguet is really a quick 15 minute drive from Baguio City proper. It is a tribute to the spirit of excellence of the Filipino artist and artisan, and honors the unique culture of the indigenous tribes of northern Philippines. It is more than just a cathedral of sorts meant to showcase the best of Philippine art and heritage. It is the only place on earth where one can witness a traditional hagabi sharing equal limelight with an Arturo Luz sculpture.

BenCab relates how his museum started:  “I had been slowly buying some farmland property on Asin Road just outside Baguio and I would visit every afternoon until I decided one day that I would build my studio on the farm so I could move here.”  

Sayaw Sabel as performed by Agnes Locsin
BenCab is a true selfless man whose passion was not only visual art but the search for our common struggles for identity as a people. His wide collection of art from the north is considered the finest in the country. “I have been collecting primitive art from the Cordilleras, as well as Philippine contemporary art for 40 years and have always dreamed of putting up a permanent home for them, to be enjoyed by generations to come.”

The BenCab Museum immediately changes every perspective one has of museums. It has evolved to be more than just repositories of old things. It is an educational center, and is considered a commune for the soul where one can get in touch with art, nature and one’s origins. Bencab explains further: “The vision to build the museum on the same property came at about the same time. I realized how much I had accumulated and that the collection was taking over my home and studio. I was also aware that some of the pieces in my possession were of "museum quality" and it would be best to share them to be enjoyed by others rather than having them end up in museums abroad.

The BenCab Museum is one of BenCab Art Foundation’s main projects. He personally curates and administers the day-to-day operations of the museum, assisted by the museum’s staff. Aside from the master, BenCab Art Foundation is composed of his partner, Annie Sarthou and have as its members some of his closest friends who share his vision. He adds: “We formed the BenCab Art Foundation before the museum was built, with the intention for the foundation to run the museum and ensure that it continue, along with our projects, after I am gone.” 

Of course, a highlight for the visitor is his own art, BenCab Gallery where his famous muse, Sabel, is the main feature. Sabel is the filthy scavenger in Bambang who was Bencab’s inspiration, when he first chanced upon her from the window of his home. Through the years, the image of Sabel eventually marked various phases of his artistic career. Sabel symbolizes the Filipino long abused and downtrodden by a society which represses its people at certain episodes of our history.

Students have been the regular visitors
It is also in this wing that one rekindles Bencab’s first major style called Larawan series in the early 70s. Having lived in London for more than a decade, he was drawn to antiquarian bookstores in search for old prints, maps and photographs of Spanish colonial Philippines. He used these images in his unique mixture of photorealism, linear drawing and broad colorful strokes that has become his trademark visual style.

Another room unique to the Bencab Museum is its Erotica Gallery which features personal sensual paintings and sculptural pieces of Julie Lluch, Macario Vitalis, Justin Nuyda and some of Bencab’s pieces of this genre.

The centerpiece which spans two floors is the Bulol Installation, Bencab’s collection of bul-ul, the rice god or guardian of the granary of the Ifugao. As Bencab has been collecting, the pieces are exquisite and the collection, extensive.  He says of his valuable tribal pieces:” I am touched especially when the compliments are from the ethnic minorities from the Cordillera region who are grateful that their rich heritage is being preserved and are proud that it is being given such importance. It is also heart-warming to get visits from large groups of students from schools nationwide and  find out that, very often, it is the very first time for many of them to visit a museum!”

The Cordillera Gallery which pays tribute to the culture of Cordillera which covers Abra, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, Mountain Province, Apayao, and Baguio. Here more recent bul-ul (granary gods) can be found together with tabayag (lime containers made from bone and deer scrotum) as well as baskets, musical instruments, woodcarving, fabric, and tribal functional pieces like spoons, forks and wood containers.  

Highland 8 Cordillera artists performing during the opening
Like a true artist, BenCab gives important museum space to other artists in the Maestro Gallery which provides a venue for a reunion of fellow national artists like Victorio Edades, Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, and Jose Joya and masters like Fernando Zobel, Roberto Chabet, Lee Aguinaldo, Manuel Rodriguez, Sr., Juvenal Sanso and Salvador Cabrera, the master’s brother.

The Contemporary Philippine Art Galleries house Filipino artists most of whom are Bencab’s friends or those his master’s eye sees as an artist with promise. Aesthetically there seems to be no fixed formula, as Bencab personally chooses and hangs the pieces worthy of his own wall space. There is an interesting dialogue among chosen artists featured here which reads like a who’s who of soon-to-be masters of Philippine art. Consider Ronald Ventura, Elmer Borlongan, Charlie Co, Marina Cruz Garcia, and Emmanuel Garibay just to name a few.  Our very own former ArtPetron winners Joey Cobcobo and Raffy Napay are represented here.

The room is charged with meaning, direction, and the personality of the artists. There is a renewed confidence in the promise of the visual arts as seen in new expressionism, abstraction and mixed media. Bencab shares: “Museum visitors (both local and foreign) have gone out of their way to seek me out and to thank me personally for putting up the BenCab Museum. The words we have heard most often are that it is ‘a world-class museum.’ Many have compared it to the Getty Center in Los Angeles perhaps because of the modern architecture in a garden setting with great views of nature (although in a much smaller scale...)

There is something Asian in BenCab’s approach to museology: art is part of that bigger scheme of things. Spanning a lot that covers 1,700 square meters, the Farm and Garden Level reflects the holistic view of our national artist who loves to till the land as much as he loves to hold a brush. There are plantations of corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, vegetables and herbs. There are mini rice terraces that employ the natural biological engineering of the terraces all over the north. Traditional huts of Kalinga, Ifugao, and Bontoc naturally adorn the landscape.

BenCab with his museum staff

Upon spending an easy half day in this stunning lieu of Filipino creative pride, the BenCab Museum is a living and testimony of one man’s lifelong passion for the arts of his people. Every Filipino must make a pilgrimage to it and leave the place with head up high and his clenched hand on his chest. 

No comments: