The greatest living Filipino surrealist is a Dabawenyo
By Phillip Somozo
Davao surrealist Ben Bañez
The Williamsburg Art and Historical (WAH) Center in Broadway, Brooklyn, New York, is a Mecca for contemporary artists the world over. In September 2004 a Dabawenyo visual artist donated to the center a painting that was pleasingly accepted by the management; after all, they are familiar with Bienvenido “Bones” Bañez Jr. — the only Filipino who qualified to the juried international surrealist show held during the fall of 2003 also at WAH Center. If Ben, as he is commonly known in Davao, were a patsy artist, his donated work would have been refused by the center lest they stake Williamsburg Art and Historical Center’s credibility. But, as circumstances would have it, Ben’s painting “My Warlock Dreams 666,” first exhibited at the Royal Mandaya Hotel, Davao, in 2002, now is a fixture at one of the world’s art Meccas.
October came, a fabulous fashion photographer wanted to make a shoot of Surrealist fashion at the WAH Center. Surrealism through decades, allow me to add, is no longer confined to dream states made tangible through painted canvases but, like a shifting rubic cube, has revealed a multi-faceted mode invading other forms of art __expression like poetry, literature, music, movies and more recently, yes, fashion! A new word describing this all-inclusive quality of surrealism has been coined: PANSURREALISM – surrealism as an everyday fact of life. The fashion photographer, Disney Nasa Borg, himself a professed surreal artist, asked WAH Center President Terrance Lindall for permission to use Ben’s painting as background for the fashion shoot. By authority bestowed on him, Lindall consented with the condition that whenever the photo gets published, the photographer will credit the painter. On top of that, in his letter to Borg, Lindall described Ben Bañez, now known as “Bones” among his artist peers in the US, as “the greatest living surrealist in the Philippines!”
I personally know Ben, he being my colleague in the art group Artisthood. While I respect the guy’s art and craft, I have reservations in becoming party to what may be a presumption that could stir dissenting opinions among beer-guzzling Filipino artists who frequent bars, beerhouses, cafes, folkhouse joints, and even sanatoriums from Davao to Manila to Baguio. Instinctively, I questioned Terrance Lindall’s uncalled-for description of Bañez as the Philippines’ greatest living surrealist. Who is he, in the first place, to speak about Filipino surrealists?
Part of the answer is Williamsburg Art and Historical Center itself for it is an institution flourishing out of art history’s organic topsoil. Its founder, Yuko Nii, was New York’s “Woman of the Year” awardee in 1998. The Time Out magazine described WAH Center as the “epicenter” of the art Mecca that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn – one of New York’s largest artist communities. Since its establishment in 1996, it gained international recognition for serving the general public by presenting art shows and cultural events of special interest.
If WAH Center’s credibility is impressive, Terrance Lindall’s is none the lesser. Described as surrealist/visionary artist, writer, philosopher, art critic, philanthropist, and institution-builder, he peers from his institutional outpost where he guards the cream of Surrealism from going down the cosmic drain. What qualifies him most to do so is his cross-century connivance with John Milton when he incarnated the latter’s “Paradise Lost” through a highly acclaimed illustrated adaptation. If that isn’t enough, add to that his 2003 New International Surrealist Manifesto wherein he coined the earlier-mentioned term Pansurrealism — the latest addition to the free encyclopedia of art styles. This last-mentioned achievement of Lindall’s rightfully puts him in history’s sparsely populated corridor next in line to Surrealism’s political boss – the poet Andre Breton who wrote “Beauty will be convulsive or nothing.”
Breton’s above-mentioned precept is fundamental to Surrealism. Musing on this information, I am jolted by the realization that Bones is in fact closely related by psychological affinity to Milton, Breton, and Lindall! Ben’s major series, born of obsession, is his “Anti-Christ 666:” a morbid depiction of the evil in man – selfishness, greed, cruelty, ignorance. While his figures and colors were excellently crafted, the overall subject matter evokes dread so that the viewer’s mood is swung back and forth between awesome appreciation and horror.
Beautifully convulsive! . . . Bones is one of us! I could almost hear Lindall describe Bones’s Anti-Christ 666 to Breton down the lonesome corridor. Indeed, Ben’s Anti-Christ 666 series stands as a fulfillment – albeit, a monument – to Breton’s beauty being convulsive! Once I asked him why does he amplify the negative features of man in his works when he could instead paint pretty pictures, he answered in his stuttering manner that he is just being “honest” to himself. To the question how he feels about being described as the greatest living Filipino surrealist, Ben humbly replies it is not his own personal claim but Lindall’s, insinuating at the same time that it is Lindall’s responsibility to substantiate it.
While it is but appropriate for Mr. Lindall to put more meat on his claim about Bones, his praises for the Davao artist confirms the perception that homegrown talents of international caliber often first gain recognition from outside his home country. God’s gift to Ben is his visual art. If he does stutter in his struggle to verbalize his thoughts, it is not because he lacked talent but because he is naturally surreal in his perceptions – congenitally surreal that he is. Art enthusiasts are better advised not to listen to his futile verbalizations. Instead, they should take a closer look at his gargantuan body of works. Nestled within the haywire of colors is the true essence of the man: Bones as the universal man who is part you and me, presenting to us a secret image of our own hidden deluded, sinful selves! Probably the reason why many of us ridicule him is because Ben is not a pretender like many of us are. It is remarkable that it had to take a surrealist luminary from New York to see through the cobwebs and find the rare jewel in the man.
Bienvenido “Bones” Bañez Jr. is a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Ford Academy of the Arts in Davao City. For some time he served as associate professor at the Ford Academy and the Philippine Women’s College-Davao. In 2002 he won the Asian Fellowship Painting Competition of the Vermont Studio Center, Vermont, USA, and had since based himself in the US. Last year he was the lone Filipino who qualified to the world’s largest-ever surrealist exhibition held in WAH Center, Broadway, Brooklyn, New York. Entitled “Brave Destiny,” the juried show was organized by Terrance Lindall himself and gathered 500 surrealists from all over the globe. Brave Destiny was opened to the public with a grand, royal, surrealist costume ball with the Prince of Denmark as one of the special guests (please log-on to www.wahcenter.org). Presently, Ben is in Northern California where he works as art teacher for autistic children. For more of Ben’s art, please log on to www.welcomebonesbanez.cjb.net.
Going back to Terrance Lindall’s authority to pronounce that Bones is the Philippines’s greatest living surrealist, I can only surmise, at best, that Surrealism’s aging contemporary guru has had encounters with other Filipino surrealists in the past. New York being the most active art center of the present world and Lindall being a part of the movement that sublimates day-to-day reality into a world of imagination, fantasy, dreams, magic, and visions of the macabre and grotesque, it is quite probable that his comment to Borg was born of a mental comparison between Bones and the other Filipino surrealists he knew. Never the less, the man’s credentials beg for rivalry while putting others’ in shame.