The curiosities of BenCab

In the recent Art in Resonance talk at The Peninsula Manila, famed historian Ambeth Ocampo sat down with the notably laconic Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera for an afternoon of art and tea.

After spending some time in Ben Cab’s studio in 2016–a privilege very few can claim to have been granted–Ocampo reveals quite a few things about the living National Artist and his body of work, in a way that only a historian that specializes in minutiae can:

“Kalakandras.” BenCab has a long-running collection of curiosities. Ocampo reveals that at the back of his studio, BenCab has printers’ boxes—wooden trays with various compartments traditionally used by printers to hold typefaces for printing—lined with his growing collection over the years, from the head of a santo, to a  niño with an erect penis, and assorted stones—which he calls “kalandrakas,” a Tagalog word for trinkets, or knickknacks.

BenCab and Ambeth Ocampo: Art in Resonance is the Peninsula Group’s global art program.

“Looking at those boxes, I just got an idea, since I collect a lot of things. I’ve actually already done 14 of them, and my plan is to exhibit them one day,” BenCab quips. “When I was a kid, we had a sari-sari store and I liked to arrange the milk cans. And as a boy I would  go down Avenida looking for tansan (bottle caps) to pick up from the pavement.”

The assemblage of curios is still a work in progress for the artist, who started putting the boxes together as early as 1989.   “Sometimes I change some of the objects [in the boxes] to go with the idea I want.”

Famous purveyors. BenCab’s early work was picked up by some celebrity purveyors, including British actress and former member of parliament Glenda Jackson and Beatle Paul McCartney.

“When I first moved to London, I was introduced to Glenda Jackson, who helped me to show my work in a gallery in Greenwich. She liked it and she bought some of them.”

BenCab signs the souvenir bookmarks.
The Peninsula Manila director of public relations Mariano Garchitorena flanked by Ocampo and BenCab

A BenCab painting also features in the famous visit of the Beatles in 1966. “Fishing in Sexmoan,” shows people fishing in a town in Pampanga, and BenCab’s Kapampangan roots. “When the Beatles came in ‘66, Paul McCartney went into my brother’s shop in Mabini and bought the painting for P70.”

Unfortunately McCartney was not photographed or asked to sign anything, and BenCab was wondering which painting he had bought until he came to live in London. “I asked my son to find out which painting Paul McCartney bought because I needed to use it for my first book,” BenCab narrates. “True enough, they sent a transparency [of the painting].

BenCab as sculptor. Bencab’s recent work with a Yogyakarta foundry has drawn attention to his bronze sculptures, including a two-meter-high sculpture of his muse Sabel, cast in bronze. But he actually started sculpting in London, where he lived in the late ‘60s to the mid ‘80s.

Afternoon tea followed the talk at The Pen’s mezzanine.

“I enjoy sculpture because it’s drawing in the round. Nowadays, what I’ve been doing is large sculptures. I was invited by a gallery to do some in Yogyakarta, where they have a large foundry, and I was given the opportunity to cast in bronze, which is difficult to do here,” BenCab remarks.

Love for drawing. Ocampo showed some drawings BenCab had made while visiting him in Kyoto in 2003, some nudes on a little pad while waiting for dinner. “I love drawing, because sometimes you come up with something that can transform into a painting,” BenCab asserts.

Sabel. BenCab’s long-running muse, Sabel, is based on a real-life scavenger that used to come to his aunt’s sari-sari store. “She would beg for food. I had my subject matter right there, from my window, and I could sketch her, take photographs of her,” BenCab reveals. I found her very fascinating, because she covered herself in plastic; it was kind of an abstract feeling as a symbol for women.”

Despite his many renditions of the shrouded Sabel—which ranges from a 13-foot panel down to half-an-inch, hand-painted pair of earrings—she remains a challenge for the master painter.

“I try to portray her differently each time, and I think I’ve been doing so for so many years now. She’s a transition whenever I do a new series of work, but also I just stop and go back to her,” BenCab states.

The Peninsula Manila, in partnership with Abitare Internazionale, currently has on show eight works of BenCab interpreted in tapestries by Moooi Carpets. The exhibition runs until July 21, with free access for visitors, and guided tours and activities for suite guests.

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