In 1965, a 23-year-old Benedicto Cabrera held his first exhibit at the modest gallery of the Art Association of the Philippines on Herran Street.
Among the artworks on exhibit were landscape paintings and stylized prints of squatter shanties. The paintings were on sale for P40 each.
Much to the artist’s surprise and delight, his works nearly sold out. Then and there he decided to quit his job as illustrator and graphic artist for the US Embassy, and pursue his art full-time.
He also decided to shorten his name to BenCab, to distinguish him from his better-known cousin, printmaker Benjie Cabrera.
Fifty years later, BenCab is arguably the country’s most famous living artist, and one of the most successful. The demand for his works far outstrips his production, and he routinely fetches the highest prices at auctions.
It’s ironic that when the artist recently tried to reacquire some of his earlier works for his personal collection when they came up for auction at Sotheby’s, he discovered that he couldn’t afford his own paintings.
“I never thought I would be this successful,” says BenCab with characteristic modesty. “I never dreamed I would become a national artist.”
It is two days before the artist’s 73rd birthday, and we are at the press launch of “BenCab: 50 Creative Years,” a yearlong, multivenue, career-spanning retrospective that will present the artist’s protean output over the last five decades, including paintings, graphic works, sculptures, books, digital art, installations and performance pieces.
Put together by the BenCab Art Foundation Inc. and Solaire Resort & Casino, it will mark the first time art aficionados can view the evolution of BenCab’s art through exhibits of his work at the BenCab Museum in Baguio; the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery; Lopez Museum; Metropolitan Museum; Yuchengco Museum; Ayala Museum; UP’s Vargas Museum; and the National Museum.
A highlight of the retrospective will be the world premiere of “Sabel: Love and Passion” on April 30 at The Theatre at Solaire, a musical inspired by BenCab’s long-running “Sabel” series, the central figure of which is the titular character, a woman of the streets who has come to symbolize the Filipino’s capacity for suffering, endurance and transcendence.
Ten years in the making, the idea for a musical based on the “Sabel” character was hatched by BenCab’s friend and compadre, BBC presenter Rico Hizon.
Conceived as a rock musical, the project passed through various hands and underwent various changes until it reached its present form which combines poetry, dance, music and visual art.
“Sabel: Love and Passion” features libretto and direction by Freddie Santos and music by Louie Ocampo. It stars Iza Calzado, Audie Gemora, Bo Cerrudo and the Philippine Ballet Theater.
As for BenCab’s thoughts on embarking on his sixth decade as an artist, he says continuous renewal is the key to staying creative and relevant.
“You have to challenge yourself: What else can I do?,” he says. “Mahirap din. To be creative, you have to keep renewing yourself. You don’t want to get stuck in the particular style that you’re known for. I don’t want to limit myself.”
With his characteristic self-deprecating humor, however, he adds: “I’m predictable, actually. I just had the skill to draw, and curiosity.”