Becoming BenCab


Epiphany for an artist not only comes when he has finally found his distinct visual style, it could also be the creative fruition of that long and arduous process of studying his purpose and experimentation; of being exposed and imbibing his contemporaries and the contemporariness in interpreting the sheer realities he evolves himself in.

For Benedicto Cabrera there were dual epiphanies. First when he was 22 years old. Seeing from his window a hungry scavenger woman named Sabel coming into their house in Bambang begging for food. The downtrodden would be his muse that would haunt his canvases in the next succeeding years. Second will be five years after when Cabrera was 27 years old living in London. Appropriated Souls seeks to investigate how both artistic approaches evolved for Philippine painter who would one day be a National Artist.

With nationalist sentiments seeping through the economy as reflected by the Filipino First policy by the government, the Sixties was a time when much of Philippine art catered to all that is positive, promising and progressive as well. The trend cascaded bright candy-colored palette that appealed to collectors and the dictates of First Lady Imelda Marcos favoring artists such as Fernando Amorsolo, Carlos Botong Francisco and Vicente Manansala. It was in this temperament that the struggling Cabrera creatively countered his influences by churning out dark and macabre hues depicting his Sabel. To even highlight the moment he would signing his artworks as BenCab so as not to confuse with the other Cabreras who also painted that time.

The earliest Sabels (‘67) in this retrospective were rendered raw and muddy in earth tones, same as the Sabel in the greasy-stained flesh that inspired them. Abandoned by her husband during the war, Sabel would scorch around the streets of Manila in search of love and affection. She would find warmth lying in the warm asphalt and in the artificial embrace of garbage bags that wrapped around her filthy body. Transfiguring her mental state into another even higher realm, Cabrera captured them in hasty, haphazard strokes, layering them in a certain box manner, typical of Cabrera’s future oeuvres.

Cabrera’s early Sabels were protest in composition and rebellion in themes altogether. She seemed ghoulish in her morena skin and her deranged manor relegated her in a corner of his canvas. Cabrera found her beauty by bringing further her chaos and squalor. The transparencies of plastic in induced motion enabled his virtuosity in paints.

Succeeding Sabels would be rendered adept with the often changing and confusing times. As mad woman to geisha, from mother country to commercial model for an international watch company; rendered in its initial brute style to abstract expressionist; from the social realist to the minimalist tendencies to its most recent done in her most abstract form with only gray and red lines dictating her silhouette.

Sabel epitomized our deeper longing for emancipation, as her poverty was our own negligence. Almost unforgiven she seems like the last muse one can immortalize on canvas yet Cabrera has rescued her from oblivion and continues to recast her from memory.

Cabrera would stretch, appropriate, and even reinvent her in whatever homage thereafter. He was as mad to his methods as her. Cabrera jazzes her up from year 2000 onwards as she would eventually be glamourized and commercialized like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The abstraction that she was in the early depiction would be lesser gothic but more of the confident in strokes and finer still in meaning as earth hues became red, pink, and black. She will be asked to be painted over and painted off to accommodate her variation. The line is long and the price is high to pay.


The second epiphany came late 60s, in an antiquarian shop in London. Somewhat an exile, one could imagine the long haired and bespectacled Cabrera passing his time in that long stretch of Beauchamp or Portobello Road, wrought in deep nostalgia for home, rummaging 19th century images of our identity in old prints, maps, Spanish colonial Philippines. Reminiscent of one’s roots these early Filipinos were seen as other photographer’s lenses.

It is also in this wing that one rekindles Cabrera’s first major style called Larawan series in the early 70s. He used these images in his unique mixture of photorealism, linear drawing and broad colorful strokes that has become his trademark visual style.

Larawan series appropriates not just old period photos but a reclaiming of our common struggles as a people; of having been perceived differently like being robbed of our identity by foreign authors in the promulgation of the exotic in their books. Cabrera’s appropriated images are like bringing home at a part of ourselves and its reclaimed iconography on the canvas.

Larawan seeks to reclaim what was lost in contracting colonial translation. Cabrera's does further justice by overturning the power relations against our colonial interlude. Mestizas garbed in turn of the century tipos del pais, rustic men clad in Barong, bare footed period vendors. More than documenting the period they are virtual character studies. His men are dignified such as Master Servant and Illustrado.

Cabrera’s women have often been the more potent force in displaying his artistic gravitas. In Woman in Flight 1976 a mist of yellow is violated with dash of red over an image of a sturdy female. Often we would see them as submissive yet Cabrera’s reference of her image he salvages by confidently violating them in a single bold stroke often of contrasting color. Her women and children may just be sitting yet up not down. Such as in Two Mestizas (2000) or Filipinas (2004) they are to choose his favorite word, defiant. His women are abled with fans, some vending clay pots, winnowing baskets, and fruits yet they their stance is dissenting and dignified. 

Appropriate Souls dwells into how an artist has appropriately responded at unexpected moments in his respective time such the spontaneity of Sabel and formalities of Larawan.

Cabrera’s brilliance lies in his war against clichés in art. He fights them in sordid manner, rebelling against any form of formality be it in color or line. At a time when formal genre prevailed you had his images haunting you long after you have seen this show.

1 comment:

Jonathan C. said...

I have seen the works of BenCab at the National Museum and I say I was amazed. Looking at his art, piece by piece, seems like you are directly communicating with the creator. - Jonathan C.