Cultural Center of the Philippines Thirteen Artists Awardee (1990), Social Realist Painter, Photographer, Illustrator and Writer
May 26, 1943 – November 24, 2021
Pablo Baens Santos was born in Manila, the fifth of six children of Amado Santos, a scientist, and Emilia Baens, an educator. His father’s nickname was Ado, so the nickname Adi was given to Pablo. In his childhood, his parents managed the Santos and Baens Laboratory, which produced the health supplement Santos Enriched Tiki-Tiki, whose vitamin B-rich formula was needed to combat the incidence of beri-beri in local communities after World War II.
Baens Santos graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. He started working as an artist in an advertising agency, and then took on various roles as layout artist, illustrator, and photographer for the newspaper Manila Times right before Martial Law was declared in 1972.
As he became more involved in the protest art movement, he worked as an artist-writer for anti-martial law underground publications Taliba ng Bayan and Liberation, and created revolutionary murals and posters. After presenting figurative paintings in his first three-man show in Sining Kamalig in 1975, Baens Santos made an impact on the Philippine visual arts scene with his vibrant colors, dynamic brushstrokes, and socio-political subject matter laid out in impactful compositions.
In 1976, he founded Kaisahan (Solidarity), the first organized group of nationalist painters. Its manifesto was written and circulated at the opening of the group’s first exhibition, Katotohanan, Kabuluhan, Kasalukuyan (Truth, Relevance and Contemporary) at the Ayala Museum, Makati.
As a collective, Kaisahan found the question ‘for whom is art?’ crucial and significant, answered by the statement that art is for the masses. In the search for national identity in Philippine art, they aimed to develop art that depicts the lives of Filipino people and the unpleasant, dangerous, and oppressive socio-political realities of the Marcos regime despite the then-government’s aim to romanticize poverty and frame social ills through beautifying filters.
Kaisahan held workshops, lectures and discussions on nationalist art to entice fellow visual artists to paint realistic and political themes, and not be chained to pretty paintings. They also attended rallies. In 1978, they attended a noise barrage on the eve of the Interim Batasang Pambansa parliamentary election, Baens Santos’ jeep shuttling the members and friends from the Center for Advancement of Young Artists (CAYA) through the streets of Manila.
Baens Santos won first prize in the 1974 Art Association of the Philippines Photo Contest for “Mga Adorno ng Binondo.” Showing a lighthearted band of street urchins, the piece captured innocent faces happily sitting in front of a gritty, graffiti-vandalized wall.
This became a recurring image in his paintings, with text often interspersed with figurations of children, mothers (Malumbay Si Ina, 1979) and workers (Bagong Kristo, 1980). Fellow artists (Manipesto, 1987), farmers (Asan ang Promis Land?, 2013), and laborers in picket lines (Piket, 2012) were set against landlords (Panginoong Maylupa, 1974) and politicos (Baboons in Session, 2013) in Baens Santos’ canvases.
Large-scale murals dominated his pieces, one of the most impressive being Oplan Tumba, an 8 ft. x 37.5 ft. oil on canvas work painted in commemoration of International Human Rights Day depicting forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in 2007 and shown in his solo exhibition at UP Los Baños.
He was also commissioned to create, for Sining Saysay, a 6 ft. x 12 ft. mural depicting the 1960’s First Quarter Storm leading to the declaration of Martial Law, and a piece on People Power at Edsa, one of ten murals by ten painters commissioned by the Quezon City government for its Diamond Jubilee commemorating the city’s 75th anniversary.
Baens Santos was a Thirteen Artists awardee of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1990. From 2003 to 2005, he won as one of the top five watercolorists at the Kulay sa Tubig Annual Invitational Watercolor Competition sponsored by Genesis Gallery, receiving the Hall of Fame Award as Top Watercolorist in 2007 and the Best of the Hall of Famers Award in 2009. As a stellar brother of the UP Beta Sigma Fraternity, he received an Award of Excellence in Creative Arts at their Diamond Jubilee in 2006.
He was also a charter member of Agos Kulay Manila and Balintawak, and member of the Alternative Horizons Media Cooperative, Art Association of the Philippines, Concerned Artists of the Philippines, and Printmakers Association of the Philippines. His paintings may be viewed in the collections of the Ateneo Art Gallery, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, De La Salle University Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Manila, National Museum of Fine Arts Manila, and Singapore National Museum.
Baens Santos passed away due to a heart attack. A proud Marxist turned renewed Christian, Pablo Baens Santos was simply Adi, Tito Adi, and Lolo Adi to friends and family– a selfless nurturer, generous mentor, and loving man of God and nation whose paintings amplified an artist’s power for self-expression in the service of his loved ones, the country, and the Almighty.
As one of the forerunners of social realism in the Philippines, Baens Santos employed anti-imperialist themes in his works while depicting the plight of peasants and laborers in the clutches of capitalism and exploitation. He believed that painters could hide controversial concepts and protest by painting in allegories. For him, social realism developed a timeless template in which painters can use artistic imagination to draw images from any social issue at any given time and environment.
Always thrilled to take part in chronicling and making history, he said, “We all come from a generation that witnessed more defined social conflicts around. It was much simpler to be allied with a broad coalition fighting a common enemy during the early years of social realism. The fall of Marcos brought to our attention so many other fronts to fight on, causing the diversification of our socio-realistic approaches. It is now more complicated, but challenging and richer.”