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Mambunongs, Mumbakis, and National Artists

In today's Sunday Inquirer Magazine.

It is early morning of February 26, 2009. Felipe Cornelio motions to National Artist Ben Cabrera to be seated. This man in leather shoes, jeans, collared shirt, and baseball cap is a mambunong, or an Ibaloy ritual specialist – a shaman, if you will. He looks up to the sky and back down to the hefty, black, native pig hog-tied at his feet and in a soft, almost inaudible chant, he lets the spirits of the land know that Bencab, who has built his house upon this land, is making this offering to them and he invites them to join the feast. In the same breath he also calls upon Jesus Christ to bless this sacrifice.

The mambunong steps back as his assistants drive a wooden stake into the pig’s heart. The spirits will surely hear the pig’s cries, and they will come to grace the occasion. The mambunong pours tapuy, or rice beer into a glass, chants over it quietly, again addressing the spirits of the land and Jesus, and hands the glass to Bencab, motioning to him to empty it.

Suddenly, gongs are heard from the street and a group of Ifugao settlers in their traditional regalia enter the museum grounds. They are elders from Hungduan and Kiangan, Ifugao, who settled in Asin, Tuba and are part of the well-known woodcarving community here. They are somewhat dismayed to see that the pig was slaughtered without them. Already the mambunong’s assistants are deftly slicing it open so that the mambunong can read the omens for Bencab in the liver and bile sac.

The Ibaloys and Ifugaos gather in a small circle on the margins of the ritual space and amicably negotiate their ceremonial rights and rites.

“We came here ready to perform our ritual blessing for Bencab,” says Erlinda Abaggue. “We were invited too.”

“But the Ibaloy spirits dominate here,” counters one of the Ibaloys. “Anyway, we are all the same here. Ifugao, Ibaloy, Igorot, whatever. All the same!”

Erlinda says with a smile, “Yes, we’re all people here, of course, but our rituals are not the same and we must do ours too.”

Bencab quietly and gently intercedes and says diplomatically to the Ifugaos, “We are all migrants on Ibaloy land here, including me.”

Bencab concedes that majority of the objects in his collection of Cordilleran art are from the province of Ifugao and it would only be right for them to be consecrated by their own people. So he asks them whether they would be willing to bless the artifacts on display in the museum. This is somewhat problematic without a pig. Nevertheless, Erlinda tells him that they can chant, play their goings, dance, and offer baya (baya is also rice beer, except that the rice is roasted at the beginning of the process). Later, Bencab decides that this should be done properly. He invites the members of the Asin-Ifugao community to return on Easter Sunday for a proper ritual with a pig and chickens. For now, he asks them to stay and be part of the festivities.

With every one now satisfied, the Ibaloys proceed with the business of preparing the meat for cooking, and the mambunong picks up the liver with the bile sac attached, and explains the reading to Bencab. The liver is large and its color is vivid. This is good. When the mambunong holds up the liver so that the bile sac hangs down its back, you cannot see the bile sac sticking out at the bottom. Bencab will not be exposed to bad luck. There are seven small lobes on the edges of the liver, also signs of prosperity. The liver has a hidden fold in it, almost like a secret pocket. Bencab will be wealthy and his good fortune will stay with him.

Then the mambunong picks up a large wooden bowl into which some of the pig’s blood has been collected, and at a surprisingly brisk pace he anoints with blood the doorways and windows, and the frames, sides, or the walls of each painting in the museum, chanting to the spirits and Jesus all the while. At one point the mambunong pauses to turn to Bencab and tells him, “Have this cleaned when we are done.”

When they re-emerge into the sunlight the mambunong anoints Bencab’s cheeks and head with pig’s blood. Then, Romeo Buyagaw, mumbaki or Ifugao ritual specialist, cries out in a powerful voice whilst waving a bundle of purple dongla leaves at the museum. He calls on the spirits to shower blessings on every person present, especially Bencab and his family. He calls on the spirits to make the seeds planted by Bencab grow strong and bear fruit. He calls on them to make the animals fed by Bencab multiply and be healthy. When he lowers the dongla leaves, the men strike the gongs loudly and in a beautiful meandering line, the men and women dance through the museum, stopping before the wall of towering sculpted figures and in the Cordillera Gallery to chant and dance some more. The beat of the gongs reverberates throughout the museum, driving out the bad spirits and attracting the good spirits who are known to enjoy such festivities.

The food is spread out on the table and dozens of people living around the museum come to partake of the feast. Bencab joins both the Ifugaos and then the Ibaloys in playing the gongs and dancing the traditional festive dances. Every one is happy.

When Bencab bought this land from the Bontoc-Ibaloy Cabluyon-Kiwas family, he did so with the intention of building his dreams. With the traditional rituals, Bencab firmly plants his roots within the communities living here. In their eyes, he has simply done the right thing. Make no mistake. These rituals are not considered weird, esoteric, or clandestine in Baguio City and her environs, though there are many who misread them as primitive, unnecessarily cruel to animals, or even the work of the devil. These ritual feasts are part of a deep-seated pan-Cordilleran conviction that reaches back across generations: those who prosper must share their blessings, and those who share their blessings will prosper. What other almost-universal formula for living could be more sophisticated than this? What purpose in life and form of death could be more respectable for the pigs and chickens that are nurtured, then butchered, cooked, distributed, and widely appreciated? What other gatherings so clearly show community-life and the bond connecting people, ancestors, and land?

“These are the things we’re missing these days,” Bencab says. “It’s original to us. To me, (these rituals are) about the most basic aspects of human nature: fertility, acceptance of the power of nature, the influence of ancestors, community.”

The following day another kind of ritual takes place in the museum. The building and the grounds overflow with Bencab’s guests. The museum fills with opera music, sung by tenor Glenn Gaerlan and mezzo-soprano Mia Protacio. Speeches are made, led by Rico Hizon. Camera flashes repeatedly light people’s smiling faces. A constant stream of delicious food emerges from the busy kitchen of CafĂ© Sabel below. The wine flows freely. Many of the artists whose works hang on the walls of the museum are here. The air reverberates with their intoxicating, intoxicated conversations. Their presence, too, consecrates the art that comprises Bencab’s personal collection.

Bencab’s collection of contemporary art brings together the works of major Philippine artists from post-World War II to the present. No other place in the country so far has the same scope and breadth of more than 50 years of Philippine art, put together through Bencab’s intimate knowledge of the period and his close friendships with the artists, including those in the Maestro Gallery. If other art collectors or even the government can or have achieved the same as – or more than – Bencab has in his collection, they have not shown their treasures to the world yet. Art critic Alfredo Roces remarks in his blog, however, that the contemporary art “pales in comparison” to the stunning collection of Cordilleran art.

A coterie of Baguio artists are represented here, chiefly Roberto Villanueva, Santiago Bose, and Willy Magtibay. But Bencab is also interested in the younger generation of artists and the growth of their work. Jordan Mang-Osan, John Frank Sabado, Roland Bay-an, and Demi del Rosario all render Cordilleran imagery and traditional motifs in their paintings. Rishab, Kawayan de Guia, Mark Dungaw Tandoyog, and Leonard Aguinaldo transcend this repetition. Their works in the museum reflect the progression of their individual styles and visions.

Bencab’s interest in what he calls “our original art” was triggered by an exhibition in the 1960’s setup by American-Ifugao anthropologist William Beyer, the only son of Otley Beyer, who is considered the Father of Philippine Anthropology. The trading relationship between William Beyer and Bencab was founded on trust and a shared love for Cordilleran objects and this is now carried on between the artist and William’s son, Henry Beyer.

Henry Beyer and Bencab walk through the museum identifying the provenance of individual pieces, many of which came from the Beyer father and son. The latter expertly identifies the regions that various pieces hail from based on their styles and motifs. According to him, bulul is by now an accepted general term for carved human figures but they are created for purposes other than guarding rice granaries. Some are made to be symbolic partners for newborn babies, house guardians, status symbols, or as receptacles for illness and misfortune in healing and cleansing rituals. Traditionally the creation of each piece is accompanied by elaborate ceremonies. Those holding bowls or with holes in their head were once regularly propitiated with offerings of rice beer or the blood of sacrificial animals.

Bencab pauses before one woodcarving depicting a father, mother, and child tableau. He compares this with sculptor Henry Moore’s Family Group. This is most likely a Kalanguya piece from the Ifugao region of Asipulo, according to Beyer, and it may have been used for healing purposes. In one corner of the room sits a carving that looks like a seated pig or dog. This one Bencab likens to the angular figures of Ang Kiukok. He turns to Beyer and asks if this is a ritual piece but no, Beyer considers this a simple yet good example of local artistic expression. Bencab’s comparisons between these pieces and the ground-breaking work of artists such as Moore and Ang Kiukok is not surprising nor untenable given that the likes of Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin drew inspiration from what was once called “primitive art.” In fact, the Picasso Museum in Paris, too, holds the great artist’s personal collection of primarily African and Oceanic pieces.

According to Beyer, Bencab is different from other collectors. He observes that while most collectors will fork out money for a 300-year old, severely degenerated woodcarving, Bencab usually chooses form and beauty over age. In Beyer’s observations of their long collector-dealer relationship, what seems to matter to Bencab is that the pieces he buys should have been at least used, once a part of somebody’s ritual life, and thereby imbued with spirit and story.

Aficionados of antiques consider Bencab’s collection to be flawed because some of the pieces are, as they put it, “bagong luma”, not exactly old enough to be considered authentic.

“That’s beside the point,” says Beyer. “Because these are living traditions, living crafts. So of course the people are making new things and they are also beautiful!”

He adds that the new tools that have become available in recent decades make it possible for people to refine their craftsmanship, as may have well been the case with the surprising details on the tabayag, or lime containers, carved out of bone.

“These are not just ‘antiques’,” Bencab posits emphatically. “These are works of art too.”

Bencab’s choices in collecting acknowledge and give value to recent innovations and present-day creative talents of Cordilleran artists where other collectors, perhaps unknowingly, relegate Cordilleran culture to a frozen, distant past. Likewise, Bencab’s decisions to honor the traditional rituals give testament to his respect and admiration for the peoples of the Cordilleras whose cultures continue to thrive and change, and in whose communities he has chosen to build his museum and grow his forest.

Across from the museum Bencab meticulously oversees the revival of a forest that once stood there. Hidden in the underbrush are the gigantic stumps of pine trees that were felled before Bencab bought the land. New pine seedlings have been planted around these stumps and all over the hill facing the museum. Bencab’s knowledge of the land is intimate. He knows which trees shelter beautiful, wild orchids in their high branches and he notes the emergence of new leaves throughout his property. Through this daily work in the land, his art, and his ritual engagement with the community, Bencab makes his place in the world here, in the quiet of Asin, Tuba.


The Bencab Museum is located on Km. 6, Asin Road, Tuba, Benguet. It is a 15-minute drive from Baguio City Center. The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Last admission is at 4:30 PM. The general admission fee is P100. For students and senior citizens with a valid ID it is P80.


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