Maipannakkel a Bigueño

Perhaps, more than any of the Philippine ethno-cultural groups, the Ilocanos have never failed to elicit a healthy curiosity, admiration and respect from their fellow Filipinos. At acquaintance level, an Ilocano to his non-Ilocano neighbor,
is unreasonably conservative, an individualist who would rather be together with his fellow Ilocanos. But if friendship blooms, the non-Ilocano will later find out that an Ilocano is such, because he is circumspect in his ways: he does not act impulsively. It is reason – more than his feelings – that guides his every step. Consequently, he is wise (nalaing) and clever (nasirib), and it is impossible not to respect him, because due to this proverbial prudence, he has a deep sense of God (adda buteng na ken Apo Dios), a virtue that tells him to be humble (napakumbaba), noble-minded (natakneng), hardworking and persevering (nagaget), and parsimonious (natiped) – he is careful with resources (nainot). Therefore, should there still be any wonder why the Ilocano race has produced two presidents of the country, Elpidio Quirino and Ferdinand Marcos – or three, if we include Ramon Magsaysay from Zambales? The same worthy traits were also the ruling ethics of the pillars of the Philippine visual arts that Ilocandia has produced. Most of us have little awareness of our cultural heritage: the history of our arts, the eminent artists of our nation and the splendid masterpieces they had awed not just the country but even the world with. Today, in consonance with our special activity to view a retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Arturo Rafanan Rabara, who has recently left our midst, let us digress briefly to learn about or remember Apo Acoy’s forerunners, their distinctive Ilocano principles and their outstanding achievements. For Arturo Rafanan Rabara, the man, the Ilocano, the artist, is worthy of their company. The vision, values, endeavors as a human, and accomplishments as artist of Acoy, Mang Acoy, Tata Acoy, Lolo Acoy, Sir Arthur strikingly echo those of his towering predecessors. I am referring to Esteban Villanueva (1797-1878) of our very own Vigan; Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899) of Badoc, Ilocos Norte; Macario Vitalis (1898-1990) of Lapog (now San Juan), Ilocos Sur; and Venancio Igarta y Claris (1912-1999) of Sinait, Ilocos Sur. Esteban Villanueva y Pichay (1797-1878) is hailed today as one of the Philippines’ earliest known artists. His immortal legacy is the set of 14 oil paintings, now in the Padre Burgos Museum, that he painted in 1821 to commit to posterity the uprising of the Ilocanos in 1807-8 in protest of the Basi Monopoly imposed by the Spanish rulers. But even before these unique paintings were brought back to the artistic limelight in the 1970s, another Ilocano, Ignacio Villamor, later president of the University of the Philippines, raised Don Esteban to national prominence by citing his diligence and entrepreneurial skills in his book, Industrious Men. The extraordinary achievements of Juan Luna in the European art scene, of course, are unparalleled in the annals of Philippine history. This Ilocano from Badoc, Ilocos Norte, was the first Filipino to be truly recognized internationally. While his friend, José Rizal lived in ordinary circumstances as a struggling student and writer in Europe, Luna was rubbing elbows with the elite, basking in the privileges of prestige and celebrity as a consistent top-placer in the art competitions in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, Rome and Munich. The early 1900s witnessed Ilocos Sur nurturing the talents of two more vanguards of art: Macario Vitalis and Venancio Igarta. After high school at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción (CIC), Macario Vitalis left for the United States in search of work in 1917. He migrated to France in 1926, where he lived for 60 years. In 1975, he was declared “the only honorary citizen” of Pléstin-les-Grèves, Brittany where he settled and in 1984, he was honored with the medal of excellence from the Institut Academique de Paris. On the other hand, Igarta left the Philippines for the United States in 1930 to work in the farms of California. Eight years later and by then in New York City, he was noticed for his artistic talents. In 1942, he became the first Filipino whose painting would be hanged in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the painting was also the first Filipino artwork to grace the cover of an American magazine, the well-known, Fortune Magazine.

Like his highly accomplished predecessors, diligence, resourcefulness and perseverance guided the entire life of Arturo Rabara, the unfailing ingredients of his academic and artistic excellence. Like Luna who worked as an assistant to Prof. Alejo Vera in Madrid and Rome, Arturo during his student days in the University of Santo Tomás, for more benefit of direct and actual tutelage, enthusiastically assisted his teachers, Galo Ocampo, Antonio García Llamas and Wenceslao García in painting murals such as those in Santo Domingo Church, and Galo Ocampo and Cenon Rivera in crafting of the stained glass in the Manila Cathedral. Like Luna, Vitalis and Igarta, he would venture out of his country in quest of a more arduous fulfillment by competing in the homeland of the colonizers. And win! Like Luna and Vitalis, Maestro Arturo would be hailed as an extraordinary citizen in the foreign place where he stayed.

Born on 13 May 1938 in Santa Catalina, the natural beauty and rich cultural heritage of Ilocos Sur served as the fertile matrices of Arturo Rabara’s deep aesthetic sense. His father, Leon Refuerzo Rabara, was a school principal, assigned to teach in the hinterlands of Candon, Cabugao, and Santa Catalina itself. The frontier surroundings of these places provided young Acoy’s early but lasting epiphanies of the colors, lines and shapes that underlie artistic beauty. His mother, Basila Ragasa Rafanan, on the other hand, showered the boy with extra attention for he was born with a congenital foot defect, hence, his nickname.

This loving but severe background guided by typical Ilocano values would mold the man who would triumph over truly extreme challenges presented by the unique circumstances of his times. The 1960s was a period of economic struggle in the country, and more so for an artist because art appreciation was very meager then. These two challenges came to Arthur, when he had just graduated in Bachelor of Fine Arts at the UST (1959) and he had just married Natividad Reomero Rabe (4 January 1960) and became a new father to Yolanda (November of same year). Yet a characteristic buoyant spirit of optimism, self-confidence and courage is what is read in his conquest of all these. In 1960, he impressed the town of Vigan with his 16 square meter mural of the Life of Saul, commissioned by Archbishop Juan Sison. In the same year, he established the Rabara Art Gallery in his house at the Florentino Building in Salcedo Street. To boost his income, he taught at his alma mater, the Ilocos Sur School of Arts and Trades and to gain a secure foothold in his teaching career, he enrolled at the La Union School of Arts and Trades and later at the Philippine College of Arts and Trades in Manila to earn another degree, Bachelor of Science in Industrial Education. And he didn’t stop when he obtained that. In 1970, he began taking units for a Master of Arts degree, traveling regularly to as far as Northwestern College in Laoag, Ilocos Norte and to Luzon Colleges in Dagupan, Pangasinan to achieve his goal. Unbelievably, in 1996, after establishing a successful artistic and teaching career, after educating five children successfully up to college, Sir Arthur, then 58 years old, along with his wife Naty, went to the United States in order to seek foreign employment. Apo! Ania metten! Dida napanunot ti aginana!

In 1998, just two years after his migration to the United States, Apo Arturo conquered an eminent portion of the United States, the seaport city of Seattle, Washington State – with his art! He had so impressed the city with his paintings, particularly in the genre of portraiture that on 11 September of that year, city mayor Paul Schell declared that day, “Art Rabara Day”. In that year, his 8’ x 40’ mural, Filipino Migration to the United Sates, was also unveiled at the Filipino Community Center in the city. The following year, the unstoppable Sir Art entered his 30’ x 40’ mural, The Profile of the Filipino, in the Festal 2000 International Mural Competition organized by the Seattle Art Commission. He won the top prize. He had finally obtained an international prize, besting 13 other competitors of different nationalities.

The artistic legacy of Arturo Rabara is presently in our midst, a body of exquisite paintings, actual masterpieces, for their sensitive capturing of faces and scenes that their painter considered worthy to immortalize, their faultless rendition of form, their rich sense of colors that reflect the beauty of both the natural landscape and the historical and living heritage of Ilocos Sur. There is no doubt about the importance of the artistic legacy that Sir Art has left to us and the immortality of his example, particularly to us, Ilocanos.