Remembering the Forgotten: A Look at BenCab’s Scavenger
- 7 June 2022
National Artist Benedicto ‘BenCab‘ Cabrera’s humble beginnings as a teen living in Bambang, Tondo exposed him to the social realities of destitution, a recurring theme found in his emblematic Sabel and iconic Larawan series. While the success of these series are representative of his leitmotif, their roots can be traced to their predecessor – the image of the scavenger – that emerged after BenCab moved to London and embarked on becoming a full-time artist in 1968.
It was during this transitional period that BenCab gave life to his Scavenger series – a time that is widely regarded by many Filipino art critics as “his most varied, most challenging, and most artistically successful.” His portrayals of the dispossessed and forgotten – those who society tended to look away from – represented in an array of muted browns and placid grey colors, and set against a dark background, are nothing short of visceral. Several of his earlier Scavenger works had indecipherable facial features, yet this particular rendition of the scavenger being offered at the Finer Pursuits: Important Philippine Art & Rare Collectibles auction showcases a rather vivid and recognizable illustration of a man with an emaciated face, devoid of emotions as he stares into the distance.
This stunning painting first appeared at an art gallery in the South London borough of Greenwich, which was formerly owned by Roy Hodges, and where BenCab held his first exhibition in the city.
Set against a solid black backdrop, awash in pale umber hues and intensified by gritty cross-hatched lines, BenCab renders the scavenger in a rigid and stationary position. His idle solitude is further emphasized by the placement of his elbow resting on his right knee, while the other hand is supported by a pair of narrow walking sticks, and with his left knee pointing outwards. Interestingly, the scavenger’s unevenly hunched shoulders and slumped manner of sitting stabilizes his form. His stolid position is in sharp contrast to BenCab’s other paintings in the series that depict similar forlorn figures, with his signature flowy draped fabrics wrapped around their bodies, wandering across desolate scenes.
By putting his subject squarely in front of the viewer – assuming the position of the observer rather than being the observed – BenCab imbues his subject with power, making a stirring and emphatic statement about the conditions of the dispossessed.
This work, moreover, does not only serve as a prelude to BenCab’s most iconic subjects, but it is also, more importantly, a distillation and expression of his sentiments. It gives a visual voice to the struggle which would become the central theme of the artist’s oeuvres in the wake of the growing social consciousness in the years leading up to the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.
What began as a humble depiction of a scavenger drawn from BenCab’s early witnessing has become a trailblazer in the Philippine art landscape and, indeed, a singular icon.