When artist Dranreb Belleza speaks, his words seem plucked from a stream of consciousness that traverse different phases of his prismatic life. The non-linear narrative is understandable. Perhaps it’s a product of going through a series of incredible, sometimes mind-boggling life events—it becomes hard to keep track which comes first in the sequence. But many times, too, he zooms in on subjects he is passionate about, and here he remembers clearly.
These subjects include his art, family, his college days, and that unusual moment in his life that suddenly came back to haunt him while he was watching Velvet Buzzsaw, the satirical horror film released by the streaming app Netflix on the first day of February this year. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a powerful art critic and Renee Russo as a scheming dealer, Velvet Buzzsaw was the talk of the art scene for weeks, and it didn’t help that it came out on National Arts Month, and on the lead up to Art Fair. The movie revolves around people in the art scene conniving to make money out of a dead man’s art collection. Soon after the works are taken advantage of, the artworks come to life and kill—spoiler alert—the greedy characters one by one.
Dranreb watched the film on the day it was released. “Somebody wrote my life,” he says.
“I remember it as clear as day.”
A Real-life Velvet Buzzsaw
Sometime in 1994, Venancio C. Igarta, a famous Ilocano artist who migrated to the United Sates in the ’30s, visited the Philippines to open an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.
Dranreb, or Reb to people close to him, had interviewed the artist before that fateful day, as Reb was a contributor to Teddy Boy Locsin’s defunct daily newspaper Today. Reb was introduced to Igarta by fellow artist Christina “Ling” Quisumbing Ramilo.
Later, Igarta gave Reb two of his artworks, the titles of which the former actor cannot remember anymore. But he remembers clearly the images on each of the drawings, both in pen and ink. One, done on gray paper, is an image of a face. “You can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman,” he says. The other one was like a sketch of the goddess Venus, standing upright, “nilagyan niya ng arms.”
Before Reb proceeds with his narration, a preamble: “I don’t wanna like, rock the boat, but this is my story. I remember it that if my friends say it didn’t happen, I don’t know.” He forgets names, he says, “but I can never forget a face or an event na gano’n.”
Years after the meeting with Igarta, Reb fell on hard times and had to sell one of the paintings (the one with the face) to a director friend, who is also a collector and patron. For the friend’s privacy, he’d rather keep his name anonymous.
One day, Reb visited the house of the director, who led him straight to the drawing of the androgynous face hanging on the wall. “Sabi niya,” Reb recalls that moment, obviously fazed. “’Reb, parang pag nakikita ko ’yong painting that you sold to me, parang sumasakit ’yong ganito ko.” As he says this, he clutches a part of his shirt that sits just a little below his heart. When Reb looked at the painting, he felt nothing. He left the director’s house and went home.
Thinking about what just happened and daunted by the bizarre incident, Reb dared to look at his last piece of Igarta in his possession. This time, he got the same unexplainable feeling—or was it pain?—that his director friend had experienced earlier. “Tumitigas ’yong dito,” he tries to elaborate, clutching his shirt again. He remembers asking himself at that moment, “What’s this? Hindi ko alam kung power of suggestion or ano.”
Apparently, he tells us, when he sold the drawing to the director, Igarta had already passed away. VC Igarta died on June 1, 2000, in New York City. He was 89. “I felt like he was communicating with me,” Reb says. “Baka Mr. Igarta didn’t want me to sell it.”
He kept the mysterious Venus drawing still. “I didn’t want to let go,” he says. “Eto na lang ’yong last Igarta ko.” However—like in many phases of his life’s journey—years later, he again needed money. He sold the Venus drawing of Igarta to screenwriter, director, and art collector Emmanuel “Maning” Borlaza, whom he calls, Ninong Maning. He tells us Ninong Maning has never told him anything peculiar about the drawing.
In 2017, his Ninong Maning passed away. After his death, The Borlaza family asked Reb for help in selling the late director’s art collection. When Reb scoured the works, he was faced again with the Venus drawing that once haunted him. He was unnerved, he admits, but he didn’t feel anything else.
Reb is unaware of the whereabouts of the drawings now, and he has never again felt that strange feeling in his body. But it was not the last time that he had this strange experience.
The Artist, In the Beginning
Reb’s intense affair with the arts began when he was around four or five years old. He takes us back to the set of the 1974 film Dalawa ang Nagdalantao sa Akin, starring his ninang, Susan Roces, Boots Anson-Roa, Ramil Rodriguez, and Ronaldo Valdez. It was produced by Rosas Productions, one of the production companies owned by his ninong Fernando Poe, Jr. He remembers people asking him if he were bored in the set because he wouldn’t take naps during break time. Rather than go to sleep, he would play with “those big Crayolas, with the sharpener, with the colors, and the coloring books.”
The Pasig-born artist and his mother, actress Divina Valencia, left for the United States when Reb was around seven months old. Around that time, in March 1970, Reb’s father, action star Bernard Belleza was shot four times and eventually succumbed to his death. A dual citizen, Reb shuffled back and forth between two countries, while he dabbled in acting and the arts. He also became an activist and had certain advocacies, among them AIDS awareness.
Through it all, Reb had always had to deal with his life’s figurative monsters: drugs, mental health problems, childhood issues, growing up in the public eye, surrounded by people whose personal relationships were as volatile as the industry they breathe in. Art was a tool Reb employed to bring out many of the sentiments he otherwise couldn’t express.
On August 15, 2011, Reb married his childhood friend, Vale dela Riva. He now has four step-children, and they all live in an art-filled house (mostly Reb’s own works) in Pasig City. They’ve been there for eight years. It’s peaceful there, he says—well, most of the time.
A Battle with Demons
In our interview, Reb reveals he’s had several encounters with spirits—and demons. Four years ago, Reb had their home exorcised by a priest. “Magnet ako for these things,” he says, unruffled. Back in their house in California, he would hear footsteps as he worked in his basement studio. “It doesn’t scare me.”
Then, around seven months ago, eerie incidents started happening inside their house again. It was a poltergeist that kept bothering them, he says. Things were flying. Doors were opening and closing by themselves. His eyes get wider as he relates what transpired, sometimes shaking his head slowly from one side to the other. “I’m sorry these are my experiences. This doesn’t diminish naman me being a Born Again Christian. These paranormal things really happened. The poltergeist would open our TV, our radio. That’s when we lost so many maids because tinatawag ’yong pangalan nila.”
Reb also doesn’t paint color fields anymore, and he tries to veer away from abstract painting because the exorcist told him these kinds of art “invite spirits, good or bad.” He also says artist Pardo de Leon once told him that he was clairvoyant.
These past few months have been good, though, quiet even. He appreciates moments like these, especially because half his life was filled with noise and clutter. Showbiz followers would know that the former That’s Entertainment star is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. He got clean seven years ago: “My wife wouldn’t allow it anymore. Nakakapagod din. Hindi ka na din maging high.” At the height of his addiction, he would take any drug available, from cocaine to heroin to ecstasy. He would split a smoke and would put it in his biko. “Umiinom ako dalawang banig ng Valium, dalawang banig ng Dormicum, nakatayo pa ako.” Valium and Dormicum are trade names for diazepam and midazolam, respectively. Both medications are prescribed to treat anxiety, among others.
We ask: Is it possible, then, that you were high or drunk when the events surrounding the Igarta drawings happened?
“No, no, no, no, no,” he answers with certainty. Many elements of his past are hazy to him, he says. The Igarta incident isn’t one of those moments.
Reb Belleza persists on getting better at life. He lost 170 pounds after a series of hospital visits because of a heart problem. He eats in small portions now, and tries to stay away from dairy, sugar, and carbohydrates. He doesn’t eat pork. His medicine for his bipolar condition makes him hungry, though, so sometimes he would wake up at night to eat. He’s happy his mother-in-law makes delicious meals.
He spends most of his time on his art, although he is currently on hiatus. He, however, did a curating job at the recently held Art Fair. His next project, he reveals, is a collection of jewelry. But that’s all he can tell us about it for now.
He’s lucky, we tell him. “Blessed,” he rewords. “Jesus Christ saved me.”
“I thought I could never paint without being under the influence,” he says. “If it [skill] is really there, you don’t need it. It’s also by practice also. You don’t become a virtuoso without practice, without putting on ten thousand hours. I mean, I treat my work as work. I get up at 10 a.m., I finish at 4 p.m. All the maids know, while I’m working, I’m praying. Tahimik silang lahat. And then I go up, ‘O, tapos na. Pakipanhik ’yong computer, speaker ko, open the salt lamp. Buksan na ’yong aquarium. It’s a process.”
Reb has been fighting demons most of his life. And, for the most part, he has prevailed over them.
“I know that there are skeptics out there,” he says, “but this is my story.”
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