Dreamlike yet incisive, contemporary yet moving, these are the singular characteristics of this rare, seminal work by Bencab (the artist's self-styled nomme de guerre for Benedicto Cabrera.)
Created as part of the artist's landmark series Larawan (Filipino for 'Portrait'), first exhibited in Manila at the prestigious Luz Gallery in 1972, Brown Bothers' Burden has all the hallmarks of the dramatic emotion and intellectual wit that has established Bencab in both Philippine and international art circles.
Amid the fading light of a golden, tropical summer, a white man is seated on a sedan chair, held aloft by four brown men. The seated man has a pale, pink, featureless face beneath a straw boater and a parasol which shield him from the sun. His flabby body is encased in a white suit, the uniform of colonial masters from Asia to America. Two barefoot men bear the bamboo poles attached to the chair. The man at the right appears to be a proud highland warrior, tall, dark, full-bodied, with lank, black hair, wearing only a loincloth whose ends hang between his legs.
He turns a pensive face to one side, holds his fist to his mouth and appears to be sunk in thought. The other man is shorter and smaller, with a diminished physique, probably a farmer. He wears a tattered, dirty Western jacket, perhaps a hand-me-down, and a moldy, nondescript hat squashed over his unkempt hair. He has his eyes cast down in an undecipherable expression. Two pairs of legs and bare feet are barely visible behind them, belonging to the two other brown men who have been carrying the white man's chair.
These two figures are excruciatingly finely wrought, alive in every detail - although it is clear immediately that while the white man is merely a shadow, even a suggestion by comparison, it is he who is by far the most important figure in the painting.
Turning the Victorian apologia for colonialism - Rudyard Kipling's infamous White Man's Burden which mapped out world politics as we still know it - on its ear, Bencab in one fell stroke revealed the tragedy and dignity of both third-world peoples and those in the rapidly-industrializing countries across the world. The emotional impact is unmistakable. Four Asians - bound together in a brotherhood that could be anywhere from the Philippines to Indonesia, Malaysia to Singapore - have been taken away from both their natural habitats and occupations and have been pressed into a new and unfamiliar world, with new rules and new masters.
In another dramatic contrast, Bencab utilizes the very same colonial iconography of the late 19th century - discovered in his travels in London in 1971 among antiquarian bookshops and aging lithographs of the British Empire - to put across this startling message. (Bencab, Krip Yuson & Cid Reyes, Mantes Publishing, Inc., Manila, 2002, p. 279).
Juxtaposing the images of a strong, free and proud warrior, with a defined cultural identity (symbolized by the loincloth) with that of a servant, badly adapting to Western culture, demeaned and humbled, Brown Man's Burden is an arresting portrait of Asians, then and now, transformed by the coming of the white man.
Both Yuson and Reyes describe this period as a defining moment in the artist's career that would not only win critical acclaim for the artist but become a "milestone in Philippine painting that also established the young Bencab as a major influence among his peers." Wrought in the halcyon years of the Pre-Martial Law, Brown Man's Burden marks a second, definitive age of Philippine painting - filled with lyrical imagery and patriotic messages that rival the era of Luna, Hidalgo, and De La Rosa.
As young men living abroad in the 1870s, these ilustrados (Spanish for the educated elite of the period) would discover the beauty and power of their native country, and commit their pride and love of country to both pen and ink, and paint on canvas, protesting the power of foreign masters. In the same way, a hundred years later, a second wave of politically aware Asian students traveling in Europe, reveling in Vietnam War protests and the French Third Quarter Storm would also do. Few artists can combine the strength and beauty of Bencab's indelible messages.