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At Large

Art and food in Baguio

/ 12:11 AM February 23, 2014

There was a time when I thought I was over and done with Baguio. The cool weather was still a draw, but ever since we built a weekend home in Tagaytay, we could find relief from the city heat without having to make the six-hour trek up the mountains. Burnham Park? Wright Park? Mines View Park? The ukay-ukay outlets? Been there—repeatedly, since childhood—done that.

But earlier this week, accepting an invitation to give an “inspirational talk” before the information officers of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, I got the chance to explore Baguio once more, and visit new attractions that friends had told me about, and written about in the press.

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I learned about the Bencab Museum some time back, and my friend Louee Padilla had been urging me to go for a visit. But it was only during a break in the workshop, before traveling back to Manila, that I finally decided to do just that.

Bencab Museum, I was told, was on Asin Road, which I imagined was quite a distance away, but when I called Louee to ask for directions, it turned out that there was a short cut from Marcos Highway, where the hotel we were billeted in was located. Entering the arch marking the entrance to Suello Village, we followed the circumferential road leading to Asin Road and found the museum, its humble façade so blending into the jumble of ramshackle homes and wood-carving shops that we almost missed it.

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For P100, one gets an entrance ticket (“Please keep this handy because there will be random checks inside,” the woman at the counter advised) and a simple brochure with directions to different areas in the museum.

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There are two major categories for the arts in the Bencab Museum: Cordillera art from  bulol  (human-like idols) to weaponry to containers, to household items; and Philippine contemporary art, ranging from the National Artist’s personal collection, of course, to pieces from the “maestros” and two galleries from contemporary painters, sculptors and installation artists.

The Cordillera folk art at the museum is a revelation. Although kitsch items on sale at various souvenir shops have cheapened the appeal of the carvers’ output, the pieces at the museum bear an integrity and a patina of authenticity—evidence of the solid scholarship and artistic taste that went into the selection of objects on display. A wall filled with  bulol  of all sizes is impressive in its scale, although the sight was ruined for me by a group of women posing in front of one of the larger  bulol, giggling as each pointed to the idol’s sex organ.

Walking through the gallery of Bencab’s art, one appreciates the breadth and depth of his artistry, especially his early forays into historical and anticolonial commentary, and makes one understand why he was named National Artist at a (relatively) youthful age. But I was especially appreciative of the collection of contemporary Filipino artists’ works, including those of older artists, the “maestros,” which was intelligently and impressively curated.

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Don’t miss a small room on the second level dubbed the “Erotica Gallery,” which holds erotic art by Bencab himself and other artists. Outstanding are the indigenous art pieces, from a wooden massage bed shaped like a human figure with a hole where the sex organ is supposed to be, to miniature carvings depicting the sex act which could be—in my mind’s naughty construction—portable “instruction tools” for the uninitiated. Dominating the small gallery is Jullie Lluch’s homage to Georgia O’ Keeffe’s intensely detailed botanical paintings: a many-layered vulva painted a bright yellow.

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The museum also hosts rotating exhibits, and the day I visited, the Indigo Gallery featured the works of Emmanuel Tolentino Santos: evocative photography landscapes of the best and worst (a garbage dump in Asin) of nature, with an anonymous astronaut standing as a silent witness. At the Sepia Gallery just off the museum shop,

Virginia-based artist Hadrian Mendoza harked back to his origins and spiritual abode with a pottery exhibit titled “Home Sweet Home.”

A brief word about museum-going: While the Bencab Museum emits a more informal vibe, inviting the public to wander at will through the three levels and out into the garden and café, it doesn’t hurt to practice a bit of decorum, since loud conversations and children running through the halls tend to distract from the focus on the art and art objects. A little respect would be appreciated.

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From the Bencab Museum, and only after several wrong detours, I finally found myself having lunch at Chef’s Home, a nondescript restaurant (we had passed it several times before finally stumbling upon it) highly recommended by SIM food writer Margaux Salcedo.

It was no empty hype. Despite the humble ambience (plastic tables and chairs), the “Asian fusion” cuisine is excellent. I had and would heartily recommend the “crispy papaya salad” that contains, not shredded raw papaya, but the flowers of the papaya plant cooked tempura-style, bathed in a brown sauce that had just a little bite to it (I ordered the “mild” version).

I ate by my lonesome, but do visit as a group because the dishes come in rather large portions (good for two to four people, I was told). The  gado-gado  (Indonesian rice) makes for the perfect backdrop for the dishes, and the  gula  malaka, a dessert of gelatinous tiny tapioca balls in a sweet sauce, ends a meal with just the right amount of sweetness.

I had my leftovers wrapped, and caught up with my traveling companions having a late lunch. I urged them to try the food, and I’m happy to report they issued hearty reviews.

That’s it: two Baguio destinations worth visiting again, and again.

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