My visit to the BenCab Museum in Baguio City on an early Sunday morning felt like a pilgrimage mainly because it seemed so far-off from the city.
The museum's website recommended a car ride (a 15-minute ride from the center of town) or travel by public transport (jeepneys to Asin Road). I took a cab and, to the driver, it seemed like forever as he looked at the signs saying "BenCab Museum This Way" with suspicion.
When we got to the place, which was nestled on a steep cliffside and looked formal in comparison to the shacks and houses we had passed along the way, the driver asked me to shell out a few extra bucks to cover his way back to the city.
I was greeted by the security guard and and a bearded man who introduced himself as Virgilio Almario's driver. I became excited knowing that a National Artist for Literature was out and about in the museum of a fellow art legend, Benedicto Cabrera.
As I slid into the heavy wooden door (which felt surprisingly light for its size), I was immediately greeted by light filtered through the many glass windows and sliding doors in the four-story museum. It all felt so light and airy, but cozy. I paid the P100 entrance fee, which guaranteed me a morning of fun and discovery in BenCab's homage to art.
It was very quiet and serene inside the place, more so because apart from Almario and his staff, I was virtually the only guest at the museum for a few hours. My tour guide said that this was normally not the case, since they had welcomed many guests since the museum opened in February 27 this year. She explained that there were less people that particular morning because everyone else was watching the "Pacquiao-Hatton" fight.
Compartmentalized in floors, each with a designated tour guide, the museum's design seemed to me simple and elegant at once. It began construction in 2007 and was lovingly crafted by Architect Raymund Sarmiento and Engr. Noli Santos, both of whom used the natural lighting and the tree-filled landscape on the four-hectare property to the museum's advantage.
Everywhere, there are balconies giving a great view of BenCab's residence and personal studio beyond the sloping driveway as well as the abundant flora and fauna. This will reportedly be the site of an Eco-tour area as well as a few huts, much like those in Tam-Awan Village, an artist's colony co-established by BenCab in Pinsao Proper.
Already, there is a rice terrace-inspired garden at the foot of the building, dotted with a variety of plants and birds, in keeping with the property's former function as a flower orchard.
I was led to the many galleries, each housing its own unique collection. The Gallery Indigo, a nook below a flight of stairs, currently exhibits paintings and sculptures by 29 artists including Leonard Aguinaldo (whose rubber etching technique has always captured my interest since I interviewed him at the Tam-Awan Village), Kawayan de Guia, and Welbart Bartolome among others. The show lasts until May 12.
The Gallery Indigo, which exhibits different works every month, previously featured works by past Philippine Arts Awards winners.
Other galleries include the Maestro Gallery which exhibited works by Araceli Limcaco Dans, Juvenal Sanso, Victorio Edades, Cesar Legaspi, Fernando Zobel, Arturo Luz, Manuel Rodriguez, Roberto Chabet, Ang Kiukok, Lee Aguinaldo, Jose Joya,and BenCab's brother Salvador Cabrera, all handpicked by the museum's maestro.
The Erotica Gallery, meanwhile, boasts of a few paintings with sexual themes (including a Kama-sutra-esque painting by BenCab) and a small collection of "bululs" or carved figures making love.
A room was reserved for BenCab's "Series of Sabel," a collection of paintings which show how the painter had varied his rendering of his muse Sabel, a scavenger or "taong-grasa." The artist even named the basement cafe after her, Cafe Sabel.
One of two Philippine Contemporary Art Galleries, meanwhile, allotted abundant space to young artists, (mostly are from the Cordilleras), including Kigao Rossimo, Jordan Mang-osan, Cawaon Cabling, Abdulmari Imao and Mark Tandoyog. I even saw a small bust made by Anastacio Caedo, reportedly Filipino artist Guillermo E. Tolentino's assistant, who posed for the U.P. Oblation sculpture.
The variety of artists showcased in the museum, for me, proves BenCab's humility and his desire to help struggling artists, even through the BenCab Art Foundation.
"It's great not only because of the size of the building but also because BenCab tried to not only exhibit his accomplishment as an artist, but also try to exhibit other artists in his collection. He tried to show the various talents that we have, especially the young and contemporary artist. Because of that, it's not just a personal museum, it becomes a real museum of contemporary arts," Almario said in an interview.
Almario, who has visited the museum thrice (from its construction to its inauguration, says he has been inspired by many of BenCab's paintings. One painting was used for the cover art of one of his books and another had inspired a poem. According to Almario, due to the wide range of works housed in the galleries, the BenCab museum could even be the "National Museum of the North."
Almario's favorite part of the gallery (and I also agree) is BenCab's extensive "bulul" collection (Ifugao for "rice god"), which he had reportedly acquired and preserved for more than two decades since he settled in Baguio in 1987.
"I am enchanted with his bulul collection. My only comment is that he should have had it curated in such a way that every figure should have a history, a sort of provenance--where he got it, the owner, how it was being used--so that it can have more anthropological use for students, for example," Almario said.
Despite the lack as yet of detailed historical notations, however, all 133 "bululs" and various other artifacts in the museum are certainly impressive and interesting.
The black figures, which vary in size and arm positions, looked lovely in stark contrast against the pale whitwashed walls. The various bululs, whose arm positions change according to tribe, are reportedly used for fertility, health, or protection.
One of my tour guides, who hails from the Mountain Province, told me colorful stories about the collections of spears, personalized wooden spoons, ancient lunchboxes, ritual offering vessels, and even lime containers used for the traditional betel-nut chewing ritual (a way of establishing goodwill or friendship).
She even described how the spear's tapered edges would lock into a rival tribesman's head during ancient tribal wars, and how "Mumbaki" or healers, would divine good or bad omens from the liver and blood of chickens and pigs. She even told me that I could recline on one of the life-sized figures, the "Kulkulis" from Sagada, which was carved from a whole piece of wood and used for foot massages.
Even the four large benches placed at the centerpiece of the wide rooms had a history. Originally confined as status symbols of rich families in the Cordilleras, now anyone is free to sit or lounge on the massive "Hagabi" benches.
As my quirky tour guide keenly observed, at least someone in Baguio has decided to collect and preserve these bits of artifacts, in testament to the rich culture of the Cordillera people. In fact, aspects of this culture like woodcarving are alive and active today, attested by the rows and rows of native handicraft stores I had passed along the way to the museum.
The desire to showcase native art even extends to the museum's gift shop, which sells various handicrafts and mementoes from suppliers all over Northern Luzon. These include woven bags, baskets, and various trinkets. BenCab's books were also for sale there.
I could have spent the whole day at that place, in peaceful contemplation of nature, culture, and art--all intertwining concepts flawlessly executed in that museum-- or in worship. Both actions seemed so fitting in a place so beautiful and serene. No small wonder this has often been called a "haven" both for artists and visitors alike.
Closing the iconic heavy wooden door behind me, I felt like I had visited someone's home (instead of a museum) and been welcomed as a solitary friend or a traveler on a pilgrimage. With no jeepneys in sight, I had to walk up a steep road, passing through the woodcarving communities along the way. Although the trek there and back was somewhat a challenge, spending even just an hour at BenCab's (and his fellow artists') homage to art, history, and culture was definitely worth the trip.