Benedicto "Bencab" Reyes Cabrera is a celebrated modern Filipino painter and printmaker. In 2006, he was declared one of the National Artists of the Philippines for Visual Arts.
He has exhibited widely throughout the Philippines and in Asia, Europe, and the United States. His early themes reflected his growing years in the places like Bambang, Tondo, and Mayhaligi. His later paintings are concerned with the Philippines' colonial past, particularly the influences of the American and Spanish colonizers. Old photographs, especially those of women in turn-of-the century fashions, have influenced him in creating these works.
Born 10 April 1942 in Malabon, Manila at the onset of the Japanese occupation, Bencab was the youngest of the nine children of Democrito Cabrera and Isabel Reyes of Pampanga. 6 months after his birth, the family moved to Sta. Cruz, Manila.
He began painting on the pavement and on walls at the age of seven. He was influenced by his older brother Salvador, already an established artist who exposed him to the world of art.
In 1954 his family moved to Bambang, a bustling but poor district in Tondo, Manila. In this place, which was rich in colorful characters, he came to develop a deep sympathy for the less fortunate.
While a grade 6 student at the Balagtas Elementary School in Bambang, Cabrera won his first art award in a poster contest with a human rights theme and received P100 as part of the First Prize.
As a student at the Arellano High School, he augmented his allowance by doing illustrations for his 59 classmates' science projects for PhP 0.50 to PhP l.00 and selling his portraits of James Dean and Elvis Presley for P10. He was part of the staff of the school paper The Tambuli.
In 1959, as one of the finalists of The Castro scholarship, he enrolled in the University of the Philippines' (U.P.) College of Fine Arts, major in illustration.
Cabrera won 2nd prize at the 12th Shell National Students Art Competition for Blue Serenity, a surrealistic abstract painting of barung-barong (shanties).
One of his professors at U.P. was Jose Joya, whom he helped in creating the sets for the ballet Swan Lake staged at the Rizal Theater and U.P. Theater. He was also commissioned to illustrate two books and for a brief time was an instant portraitist.
In 1963 he won 1st prize for his oil painting of a talipapa (market) in the U.P. Student Council Art Competition.
He dropped out of college before finishing his degree and joined the new staff of Liwayway Magazine as illustrator along with Ang Kiukok, Alfredo Roces, Romy Mananquil, Arthur Nicdao, for three months. At the time, the magazine was being modernized by Morita Roces-Guerrero.
His first full-time job was with the United States Information Service as lay-out artist,work with led to his development of myopia.
In 1964, while at Bambang, he noticed Sabel, a bag lady/madwoman/scavenger who became for him a symbol of dislocation, despair and isolation, representing human dignity threatened by the harshness of life. She was to figure frequently in his works throughout the years.
As a rising artist, he decided to use the contraction Bencab to avoid confusion with other painters named Cabrera (a common Philippine surname). He and his brother set up a studio/workshop/gallery called Sining along with Bal Magallona Jr. and Edgar Soller on Mabini Street. Eventually they had to give up the place as they were unable to pay the rent.
In 1965, he took on several illustration jobs and dabbled in photography. He designed Mirror Magazine's Milestone magazine special. For the next three years, he worked as an illustrator for the Sunday Times Magazine as illustrator. Meanwhile, he was still developing his art, going on more sketching and photographic expeditions with fellow artists. With photographer Romy Vitug, he went on photography jaunts in the reclamation shantytown, which led to his "Barung-barong period" in his art. He exhibited at the AAP gallery in a three-man show, with Virgilio Aviado and Marciano Galang. This alliance would be repeated in two later exhibitions within the next twenty years. The following year, when he was 24, he held his first solo exhibition of oil and acrylic paintings at the Indigo Gallery in Mabini, which he had established with brother Salvador and other artists. This was the exhibit in which the character "Sabel" was first introduced.
At the 20th AAP Annual Exhibition and Competition he won three awards in the Photography category. He joined the Saturday Group in their Exhibition of Nudes at the Solidaridad Galleries.
At about this time, Arturo Luz discovered him. He included him in the Luz Gallery's exhibition, Young Artists 1968. In the same gallery, Cabrera had his second solo show, with 60 acrylics depicting Sabel, scavengers, laborers, and esteros. This exhibit formally launched his artistic career. That year he participated in the Tokyo Biennale in Japan.
The following year, along with Virgilio Aviado and Lamberto Hechanova, he represented the country at the renowned VI Paris Biennale, exhibiting hard-edged, spray-painted, abstract oil paintings. He traveled through several other countries as well, ending in London where he married his fiancée, English writer Caroline Kennedy. They had met some years earlier at the Indios Bravos, a favorite hangout of artists and writers that was located next to the Indigo Gallery. He and his wife raised a family in London. At first, he sold oriental antiques at the Chelsea flea market to augment his income. During these years he studied printmaking at the Chelsea School of Arts and exhibited in Spain as well as London. He discovered rare Filipiniana prints and photographs in London's antiquarian bookshops, which was to influence him in creating Larawan, a series of acrylic paintings that used sepia-toned images of the past in commenting on current issues. He returned to the Philippines two years after his recognition as one of the first recipients of the Thirteen Artists Award in 1970. Two years later, having witnessed the state of the Philippines under Martial Law, he returned to London and created works that dealt with political issues.
After his divorce in 1986, he returned to the Philippines in time to be a part of the EDSA Revolution of 1986. Inspired by the event, he painted a second version of his work Two Filipinas, a depiction of two women in turn-of-the-century dress with modern Westernized objects. This time, in honor of EDSA, the two women are showered by yellow confetti.
Some of his Achievements
- 1972 Larawan at The Luz Gallery
- 1978 Larawan II: The Filipino Abroad at The Luz Gallery, an off-shoot of the first Larawan exhibition
- 1981 Joins Nena Saguil, Macario Vitalis and Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi in an exhibition Six Artistes Contemporains Philippins en Europe at the Academie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris.
- Holds a ten-year retrospective exhibition of prints in Ben Cabrera Etchings: 1970-1980 at the Museum of Philippine Art
- Exhibits a new series of colorful drawings Punks at the Tricycle Theater Gallery in London, which he co-curates.
- 1982 Joins Five Filipino Artists (with Cesar Legaspi, Ang Kiukok, Mauro Malang Santos & Ramon Gaston) at the Wraxall Gallery in London.
- 1984 Travels to Hawaii for Being Filipino: Paintings, Prints & Drawings, a major 12-year retrospective exhibition at the Focus Gallery of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
- 1986 Selected Works at the Lopez Museum Memorial Gallery homecoming exhibition - a mini-retrospective focusing on the recent EDSA revolt.
- 1988 Recent Works at the October Gallery in London, including America Is In The Heart, a large oil painting inspired by the book by Carlos Bulosan
- Receives the Kalinangan (Cultural) Award For Painting from the Mayor of the City of Manila on the occasion of its founding day.
- Executes the stage design for choreographer Enrico Labayen's Sabel, a dance interpretation of his favorite subject, portrayed by Agnes Locsin in her final performance as a dancer
- 1992 Receives the Gawad CCP Para Sa Sining (CCP Award For The Arts) for Visual Arts
- Joins Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi and Claude Tayag in an exhibition Three Filipino Artists at the Philippine Embassy Exhibition Hall in Beijing, China.
- 7th Asian International Art Exhibition
- 1994 Receives the Most Outstanding Kapampangan for Arts & Culture (Painting) Award from Philippine President Ramos on Pampanga Day, “for bringing honor to the people and province of Pampanga”, his native province.
- 1995 Featured artist for the Philippines in the exhibition Asian Modernism: Diverse Development In Indonesia, the Philippines, & Thailand
- Bencab's Rock Sessions at the Art Center, SM Megamall
- Creates a stir when he exhibits a large portrait of Flor Contemplation at the 10th Asian International Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila)
- 1996 Exhibit of his illustrations for the book El Indio Bravo: The Story of Jose Rizal, a biography of the national hero written by his grand-niece Asuncion Lopez-Rizal Bantug, in celebration of the centennial of Rizal's death at The Luz Gallery
- Envisages & helps set-up Tam-awan Village in Baguio for the preservation of Cordillera culture & traditions
- 1997 Chosen by the ASEAN Business Forum to receive the ASEAN Achievement Award for Visual & Performing Arts at the 5th ASEAN Achievement Awards in Jakarta - a recognition and tribute given to outstanding ASEAN individuals in their respective fields of endeavor
- Receives the Outstanding Citizen of Baguio Award for Arts from the Mayor of Baguio, his adoptive city, on its 88th Foundation Day
- Exhibit of art using photocopies in Images Of The Cordillera at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila
- 1998 Larawan III: The Filipina ca. 1898 at The Luz Gallery in honor of the Philippine Centennial
- 2000 A 1983 oil painting, Waiting For The Monsoon, is included for the first time at the Christie's Singapore auction of Southeast Asian Paintings
- 2002 Homage to Sabel at The Luz Gallery on his 60th birthday
- 2005 Invited by the Singapore Tyler Print Institute to join their Visiting Artists Programme as artist-in residence for one month working on large-scale prints & paper pulp painting.
- BenCab: The Artist. Bencab Website. (accessed November 15, 207)
- CCP Encyclopedia of the Arts Vol 4. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994.