Arts & Culture

How Bencab, Joven Cuanang, and Cora Relova Have Kept History Alive in Their Respective Estates

A trip to some of the country’s favored destinations offers a glimpse of the past.
IMAGE AT MACULANGAN
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A trip to some of the country’s favored destinations offers a glimpse of the past through the inspired labors in heritage retrieval of bold individuals like National Artist Bencab, neurologist-art patron Joven Cuanang and heritage advocate Cora Relova.

It is said that leaving home sharpens one’s sense of it. This seems to have been the case with Benedicto Cabrera, better known as Bencab. Living in London in the ‘70s, Bencab found himself drawn to antiquarian bookstores and shops in search of old prints, maps, and photographs of Spanish colonial Philippines. This inspired his “Larawan” series that marked an early decade of his works. The images, based on colonial photography, portrayed Bencab’s strength in portraiture, and his uncanny ability to suggest parallel scenarios between the past and present.

On his return in 1986, Bencab, arguably among the most important artists today, threw down roots in Baguio City where he continues to create art—and stir fresh respect for the traditions of his home in the mountains.

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National Artist Bencab

His farm in Asin, in the municipality of Tuba, Benguet, a few kilometers away from Baguio, is a dedication to Cordillera culture. Besides dramatic views of the mountains and the sea, the extensive farm boasts greenhouses for flowers and ornamentals like anthurium and ginger torch, as well as terraced rows of organic vegetables, coffee, and strawberries.

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Traditional huts from Ifugao and Kalinga, meant for visiting writers and artists, were outfitted with modern conveniences. But apart from Asin’s cluster of indigenous mountain dwellings, a 1,700-square-meter museum houses not just Bencab’s art and his collected works of contemporary Philippine artists, but also the rich trove of Cordillera artifacts he has amassed for nearly three decades.


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An Ifugao hut sits on a terrace below Bencab’s modern home and studio

Administered by the Bencab Art Foundation, the museum in Asin revives a worldview that is fast fading with the onslaught of modern preoccupations. The astonishing array of bulol (granary gods), tabaya (lime containers) made of bone and deer scrotum, intricately woven native baskets, musical instruments, woodcarvings, fabrics, personal accessories, furniture and agricultural tools in the Asin collection pay homage to the rich culture that has nurtured many an artist and Cordillera citizen before Bencab. The museum hopes to keep these inspirations alive for those that will come after him. 


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Red ginger torch grows in wild abundance


String beans are among the traditional crops cultivated in Asin


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A prized hagabi and a sculpture by fellow National Artist Arturo Luz give a glimpse of what’s in the museum.

Sitio Remedios

Asin’s tribute to native Cordillera resonates in Cuanang’s handiwork in Currimao, Ilocos Norte, where he has built an estate that is as much a commemoration of history as it is a home.

In Sitio Remedios (lovingly named after his mother), the avid art collector has recreated a seaside property into a Filipino colonial town, complete with a chapel inspired by the historic Paoay Church and elegant old homes. With each piece meticulously numbered, Cuanang transported these homes to Sitio Remedios.


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Joven Cuanang and an ancient sampaloc tree stand guard before the Capilla de San Miguel.


The conference center named Centro Iloco de Juan Luna

Some houses are named according to their provenance—Piddig, Bacarra, and Dingras. The composite ones, or the so-called bahay retazo, are called radrillo (red brick), puraw (white lime wash) and pasuquin. To round off the experience, Cuanang only serves authentic Ilocano food to guests.

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Balay Radrillo and Balay nga Puraw as seen from the chapel grounds


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The main door of Balay nga Bato

He recalls how Sitio’s parts came together—from one ancient sampaloc tree that had to be sacrificed to give the plaza a view of the sea, to the cobbled plaza whose slabs of natural stone were gathered from a nearby quarry in Dingras. The quarrymen who worked together relied pretty much on instinct in putting together the ancestral jigsaw.


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A picturesque corner of the Plaza de San Miguel


Past the gated arch and a footbridge at the entrance to Sitio Remedios is the Avenida de Azucao. It is named after a variety of lotus once found in Paoay Lake.

Those who experienced the quaint world of Sitio Remedios have been inspired to do the same with their own ancestral legacies. 

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Heritage Town

A more conventional, but no less detailed, approach to heritage conservation is showcased in the historical town of Pila, Laguna. Reclaiming the priceless artifacts and legacies of the over 400-year-old town was done in situ, unlike the more flexible projects of Bencab and Cuanang, which had required transporting entire huts and houses. When Cora Relova returned to her hometown after 14 years of living in New York and San Francisco, she discovered that the once-charming plaza of her childhood had virtually disappeared, altered by time and regretfully neglected.


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Torre ni Mariano

Luckily, she found ample support in family, namely second cousin Querubin Relova (then the town mayor); Monina Rivera, another cousin; and historian Luciano Santiago (whose history of Pila later helped make it a landmark). It was essentially a family effort: the owners of ancestral homes around the plaza were all relatives so that when a house went up for sale, another relative bought it. Much about the town is a reminder of family, as Relova herself was born in a charming house at a corner of the plaza.


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Antique four-poster beds in Corazon Rivera's house


The grand piano in the living room of Manuel Rivera's house

With the help of the Pila Historical Society Foundation, Pila’s cuadricula has been faithfully restored. Proving that the past can thrive alongside the needs of the present, the precious structures in Pila were retained, which include a pathway along the perimeter of the town plaza, a water fountain built by American engineers in 1911, a welcome arch, street lights, and park benches. Relova’s unceasing efforts helped galvanize the town’s social and civic leaders into action; they have been cooperative in matters of heritage conservation, especially since the National Historical Institute honored Pila as a National Historical Landmark in 2000.

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An old map of Pila in the municipal hall

Pila’s ancestral homes may embody the gentility of a particular period in local history, but there’s no reason these could not coexist alongside the exigencies of contemporary times. The families of the houses’ original owners have gladly opened their doors to tourists and visitors but not at the expense of their privacy. The citizens of Pila have breathed life into the charming past for all to experience and enjoy.

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The quaint white house of Jose Agra and Rosario Villarica


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A sitting room at Candida Rivera’s house

These preservation initiatives surely require tenacious personal dedication and conviction. There is hope for more Pilas in the Philippines or cultural preserves like those built by Bencab and Cuanang, even amid the perils of time, ignorance and indifference. Such important reminders of fertile cultures serve as oases where future generations can refresh their souls—and thus more thoughtfully navigate their paths in a fast-changing world without losing their way.

*This story was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Town & Country.
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Jocelyn de Jesus
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