In celebration of BenCab’s 50 creative years, we take a look back at some of the significant points of his artistic journey and how he has been hailed as one of the most important figures in Philippine contemporary art scene.

1. He was a student of another National Artist

Benedicto Cabrera’s artistic talent was very apparent at a very young age. As a young child, he painted on readily available surfaces of pavements and walls, made extra money by doing his classmates’ illustration assignments, and bagged prizes and recognitions from amateur art contests. When he enrolled at the University of the Philippines’ College of Fine Arts, he had the opportunity to work with one of his professors, Jose Joya. Jose Joya, known for his abstract paintings, posthumously received the honour of being a National Artist for Visual Arts in Painting last 2001. Meanwhile, Cabrera received the same award in 2006.

2. He doesn't remember the exact face of Sabel

When he was in Tondo, Manila in the Sixties, he would see Sabel, a bedraggled scavenger wandering the Yakal Street wearing scraps of plastic. Cabrera, who was then working as an illustrator and layout artist for a magazine, took this  opportunity and drew abstract sketches of the woman. According to him, the woman who he named as “Sabel” is a representation of not just a homeless woman but of any Filipina as well. “Looking at the way she moved, how her ‘clothes’ swayed, she could be an OFW, a vendor, a dreamer.” Moreover, the artist could see in the alluring image a certain fashion sense and surreal dance movements that inspired his later works.

To cut the story short, Cabrera encounter with the woman encouraged him to pursue a career in the arts and end his 5-year-long job in the magazine. In 1966, he started painting professionally and had his first solo exhibition at the Gallery Indigo in Malate, Manila. Since then, he was known as “BenCab.”

3. He missed London's cool weather that's why he decided to reside in Bagiuio City

In the late 1960s, BenCab’s personal life brought him to London. He took printmaking classes and participated in gallery shows. At the Chelsea antique shops, he rediscovered colonial Filipino photographs, which became the visual anchor of his Larawan series. In spite of the social and political tensions, BenCab returned to the country in 1972. At the Luz Gallery, he exhibited his Larawan series for the first time, which generated strong public interest for its visual familiarity and resonant social commentary. 

In 1985, he came back to the Philippines and decided to reside for good. Being in London for 13 years, he became accustomed to the cool, foggy, and rainy weather. “Baguio reminded me of that. I was lucky that I have a cousin who had a house in Baguio and was about to migrate. I bought the house and built a studio there.” 

4. He has worked with a lot of other artists not only for group exhibitions but also for group paintings and other art causes

Besides his countless works and significant contributions to the Philippine contemporary art, BenCab is known for founding the Baguio Arts Guild with Kidlat tahimik, Santiago Bose, and Roberto Villanueva. Together, they have sparked a dynamic and vibrant art scene in the Cordilleras. Also, when BenCab noticed that the wood is getting scarce for the carving community near his museum, he gave bamboos for the people to work on. Some of the wonderful works of the Cordillera people, including their traditional paot carvings, could be seen today in his museum. 

5. "Curiosity. Passion. And making art from life" are the things BenCab finds essential in every artist

Being a major figure in the Philippine art scene, BenCab expands from his milieu of art-making to draw attention to his social advocacies. Through the BenCab Art Foundation, Inc., he supports activities related to the arts and the environment, and tries to help uplift the indigenous Cordillera communities in any way possible. Although known for his abstract and minimalist contemporary art, BenCab never fails to draw his inspiration from life—capturing the delicate movements and raw emotions of actual living figures or at least of his memories from his encounters. With this, BenCab defines three important things for every artist to succeed: “Curiosity, passion, and making art from life.” 

Although having awarded of such prestigious recognition, BenCab never forgets to look back to his humble beginnings and give back to the people who helped him along the way. Sabel, the scavengers, the Filipinas in traditional baro’t sayas from the old photographs, and the lumads—they have each shared a part in BenCab’s journey. “I want to be remembered as a Filipino. A Filipino artist, that’s all,” BenCab said. 

The “BenCab: The Filipino Artist” retrospective exhibition is part of a series of exhibitions in eight museums marking the Fifty Creative Years of the national artist. Collaborating with the Metropolitan Museum of Manila are Del Monte Philippines and Nutri-Asia, and supported by Smart Inifinity, Mercedes Benz, and Pioneer Insurance.

The Metropolitan Museum of Manila is located at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Complex, Roxas Boulevard, Manila. Museum hours are from 10 AM to 5:30 PM, Mondays through Saturdays.

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