The Many Faces of BenCab’s Iconic Sabel
- 11 December 2021
National Artist Benedicto Reyes Cabrera — or BenCab, as he is more popularly known — has a long list of accolades attesting to his solid and enduring contribution to Philippine art. Growing up in the Bambang district of Tondo, Manila, BenCab was surrounded by an assortment of colorful characters – among them, a scavenger who would go down in Philippine art history as his muse, Sabel.
In BenCab’s minds eye, Sabel was a symbol of dislocation, despair, and isolation — the personification of human dignity threatened by circumstance. Sabel captured the mind of the artist as her makeshift clothing, made out of throwaway plastic sheets, created different shapes while she moved around, scavenging for food. He saw her around the Bambang area in Tondo for two years, until she just vanished into memory and into BenCab’s art.
An idée fixe in the artist’s celebrated body of work, Sabel has transformed since her introduction at BenCab’s first solo exhibition at Gallery Indigo in 1966. In her evolving iterations, the muse has become a platform for the artist’s explorations of form and meaning, her permutations paralleling the various art styles BenCab went through over the decades, from social realism to abstract expressionism to minimalism. As she made her way from traditional paintings on board to works on paper, canvas, and sculptures, the image of the destitute woman has indeed gone beyond who she used to be – becoming a symbol of his development as an artist – moving from disenfranchised vagrant and patron saint of the dispossessed to totemic exemplar of beauty and grace and, in many ways, in light of the stature of her most avid collectors, sophistication and power.
This major work is arguably one of the most refined, and quietly understated manifestations of his iconic subject. In the lower right corner of this rare oil on canvas, Sabel is ensconced in a cloud of elegantly draped fabric, her unkempt hair unmistakable. The color gradation of the painting, moving from sea green to white, reminiscent of the effect of his earlier soft ground editions, imbues a layer of romanticism to this work, a mirror image of the 1975 etching by the artist, Sabel in Flight.
With her body enveloped in a glistening material, only Sabel’s face is exposed by the artist to focus on her expression. The mixture of white and gray gives a glossy effect to the wrap, its pleats impeccably depicted. Sabel’s genial face is highlighted, a retroactive reprieve to the artist’s first muse. Her expression depicts the joy in the simplicity of life, complemented by the orange setting behind her.
This important painting features vigorous and stylized brushwork. Its monochromatic palette and substantial size make this depiction of two Sabels unique among BenCab’s depictions of the famous silhouette.
With a gaze confronting the viewer with confidence, Sabel relays a self-assured stance. Unlike other versions of the icon swirled in textile drapery, this Sabel’s clothing retains its clean lines, kimono-like folds framing her body. While the composition is kept very tight, the translucency of the master’s acrylic strokes allows the viewer to see his hand, portraying an impulsiveness and fervency for which this leitmotif is most known for.
Whether she is embodying the weight of societal infringement in her heavy black and white inked form as she was in her first conception, or later when she was dancing in an exploration of cloth, shape, and color, Sabel has always been a picture of beauty — a discussion on both its visual and phenomenological implications. With her signature smile, Sabel has allowed the artist, alongside his entranced audience, to explore the ever changing and encompassing iterations of beauty in all its possible meanings. Here, blanketed in volumes of cloth and flanked by a richness of red, the famed muse exudes a feminine charm.
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