BenCab: Young at 70By Thelma Sioson San Juan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
I can’t keep my promise to write this Sunday about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the New York Times bestseller which woman readers call “mom porn” and are lapping up so that it’s outsold Harry Potter on amazon.com.
I haven’t had the time to read it, but Alya Honasan found the time (one night?). She writes a very good review of it and puts it in the context of erotic books she has read from her early adolescence to adulthood— an erotica authority indeed.
Instead, I’m dwelling on a man whom many Filipino women are also interested in—BenCab, the National Artist who has tremendous sex appeal.
BenCab turned 70 last April, and he’s in a good place, literally and figuratively.
He has built his dream—one of his dreams—a museum/gallery/home laid out before a rainforest in the mountain of Benguet, a multihectare garden where he continues to grow trees, ornamentals, bamboos, coffee, herbs, really all kinds of plants. This “garden” is actually hectares of nature paradise he wakes up to in the morning, where he treks in various parts of the day, camera in hand so he can record its many changing faces through a day.
“This is my last stop,” he tells us. “My last stop in my life,” he also told Cocoon four months ago when the home magazine did beautiful spreads of the BenCab museum, the photos of which BenCab himself took.
BenCab Museum has become a destination in Baguio. People go there to see the works of BenCab spanning various stages and media, as well as his collection of Philippine contemporary art, of highland sculptures and betel nut containers, of erotic art, and in the gallery, the installations of Baguio artists. The gallery has a schedule of exhibits and art events.
But more than building a place, BenCab has designed his life anchored on his art—and his community. More than a decade ago, he formed the Tam-awan Village of Baguio artists to showcase the arts and crafts of the Mountain Province.
BenCab relishes looking back—to his startup in the ’60s as a struggling artist of The Sunday Times, to his life in England where he was exposed to great art and cosmopolitan life and he built a clientele who included Paul McCartney (in the late ’60s when the Beatles came to Manila and McCartney chanced on BenCab’s acrylic, “Fishing in Sexmoan”) and Glenda Jackson, to the evolution of his “Sabel” that won him loyal Filipino art collectors such as Manolo and Maritess Lopez, and ultimately to his being named National Artist for Visual Arts in 2006, at 64.
But even as he looks back and has mined the various eras and milieus for his art that spans a vast range of media (including pen and ink, gouache, print, photography, acrylic, sculpture), BenCab has also been giving back to the community. His estate in Benguet is actually his way of caring for the Baguio he has learned to love, since he estab lished roots in it in 1985. He has devoted his years to preserving and nurturing this environment—the mountains that were beautiful once but are now congested, polluted and in decay.
Especially now that we survive one disaster after another, the efforts of this 70-year-old to take care of his environment and its people are like a breath of revitalizing air. They give you hope for the country.
But the blessing is not only ours; it’s also his. BenCab is relishing his life at 70.
That afternoon last month when we finally visited his museum—our first visit since 2002—we had fun, serene fun. As we sat at Café Sabel (he built a café in the museum) and looked at the pond and the lush forest beyond it, the fog would descend and form a shroud around us. Then in a moment it would be gone, like a diaphanous veil that had been lifted so surreptitiously. In the next moment, it would be back again. It was a fleeting hide-and-seek.
It was then that we understood what BenCab meant when he said that each hour of the day lent a different character to his world.
He led us to a trek to the waterfall to show us how its water has grown stronger into a more continuous rush since the last time we were there. He has always been proud of this waterfall. He was right—had we been dressed for the pristine occasion, we could have dipped our feet, even reclined and relaxed at its mouth.
He walked us through his greenhouse and nursery of bromeliads, then to his mini aviary. He also has an eco-trail which we didn’t dare explore; tennis has punished our hamstrings enough.
We revisited the “riprap” terracing he worked on with the Ifugaos; on our previous visit, he had just begun work on it.
He now harvests Arabica coffee and continues to plant trees, bamboos, more ornamentals. He began work on his land 11 years ago. He hasn’t stopped. He’s always told us that this is a work in progress.
After we surveyed his domain, we sat down again to survey his life. How young BenCab is at 70.
How does it feel to be 70?
You start thinking and you like to feel it’s the same. But I’m 70. May nararamdaman ‘yan. One time, I got an attack of gout; it’s the food. Pero gumaling… I was given a maintenance pill for a whole month but I suffered severe allergy. I didn’t realize. So I was rushed to the ER. I was in the hospital for four days. It was a reminder that I was already 69 and turning 70.
Apart from your art, what do you think is the most notable thing you’ve done?
This place. It’s a dream. This museum, from katas ng painting. I didn’t look for this land. The offer to buy just came. This is my last stop.
Then there’s the Tam-awan Village. Before that, putting up the Indigo Gallery in the ’70s with Bibsy (Carballo). Those days, it was wanting to earn money. I’m the youngest of nine children.
The memorable moments? (My life in) London. Coming home during the Edsa Revolution. The National Artist Award. But also, being given the Doctorate in Humanities, honoris causa, by the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in 2009. I cried. It was as if my life was passing by.
Why have you come to love Baguio so much?
The weather. The environment. It’s conducive to work. I tried painting and living in Manila, but no…
What makes you young at 70? I mean, what’s a BenCab day like?
I have coffee at 5:30 a.m. Sometimes I do tai chi. Then breakfast. I work until lunch, then I take siesta. Then I walk around the museum. I tend to the bonsai. I plant.
Last year, I had a two-week art residency in Mexico with Mexican sculptor Sebastian, Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar. Then the three of us had a post-residency exhibit at Visual Arts@Temenggong in Singapore last June, also at the White Box Map@Publika in Kuala Lumpur in July.
I’m doing watercolor—birds—also Sabel-inspired sculpture.
I’m busier now at 70. Going abroad. I’m a late starter.
Do you notice a higher incidence of art forgery now?
Sometimes whole albums are brought to me (for authentication) and the works are all fake. At least twice or thrice a month. The forgers are getting better.
You’re one artist with tremendous discipline and some regimen.
I got used to meeting deadlines when I worked for Sunday Times.
Among the artists, who would you consider are the five major influences on your art and life?
Botong (Carlos Francisco), Arturo Luz, Manansala, Amorsolo, and my brother Salvador Cabrera. He opened doors for me. We were born 13 years apart. He was my “manong.”
How about the people dearest to you? Who are they?
My children (Mayumi, Jasmine and Elisar), and Annie (Sarthou, his longtime companion.
I realize that in my life, I’ve always been protected by women, growing up in Bambang, in Yakal. I studied at Torres, at Arellano. I have six sisters. We grew up in Tondo (notorious in those years for gang wars). I got used to my sisters receiving suitors in the house, and these men would lift their shirts to reveal scars from stab wounds. Pahabaan.
What do you wish for yourself now, for your country?
I’m optimistic about the country under P-Noy. Things are finally happening. The art scene is active. Young artists enjoy the privilege of being exhibited abroad.
And for yourself?
I don’t really look for goals. It just comes to me. Once the occasion comes, creativity comes, too.
I remember what BenCab told me years ago, when we talked about the blessings in life. “The effort must be effortless,” he said, meaning one must learn not to try too hard.
A devout tai chi practitioner, he repeated his philosophy: “Find the middle way; don’t lock yourself into a movement, so you’re free to move on, either to advance or to step back.”