Pablo Baens Santos: The social realist who told the truth

Shy, uncompromising, he was underrated by a society whose ills he exposed

Pablo Baens Santos' 'Baboons in Session' (2008, oil, 6 ft. x 7 ft., private collection)

Pablo Baens Santos in his studio. IACC and Church Cafe hold ‘Tribute to Adi’ December 2 via Zoom.

Baens Santos’ ‘Jeepney Rhapsody’ which he donated to Maningning Miclat Arts Foundation

“I can still explore many themes, social realities, no longer just of the material world but of the spirit world. I don’t want to deviate from my mandate, which is to tell the truth.”

Pablo Baens Santos

One of the leading lights of the social realist movement in the art in the Philippines, Pablo Baens Santos passed away recently due to an illness. He was 78.

Pablo Baens Santos: ‘I don’t want to deviate from my mandate, which is to tell the truth’

A visual artist, illustrator, writer and photographer, Baens Santos, nicknamed Adi, belonged to the so-called social realists who came to the forefront during the rise of nationalist fervor and student activism at the start of the 1970s. With the declaration of Martial Law, activists went underground while the artists’ protest moved from the streets to the art galleries. A group of like-minded artists formed Kaisahan as an alternative to the state-sanctioned art promoted by Imelda Marcos’ cultural apparatus.

‘Mga Manggagapas’ (oil on canvas, 78 cm x 53 cm,, purchase fund from Fernando Zobel, Ateneo Art Gallery)

Kaisahan circulated a manifesto that stated that they would develop an art that “reflects the true conditions and problems in our society” as part of its search for national identity. The manifesto was made public during their exhibit, Truth, Relevance, Contemporary, at Ayala Museum in December 1976.

In many ways, Ferdinand Marcos’ repressive Martial Law regime was the crucible which forged the Philippine social realism. Social realism has been defined as the practice of using art—primarily visual art—to highlight political and social issues. It takes a critical look at the poverty, injustice, and corruption within a society.

‘Mga Dios-diosan’  (1994, 63 in x 73 in, oil)

Sources say that social realism traces back to 19th-century European Realism. Britain’s Industrial Revolution aroused concern for the urban poor. In Russia, Peredvizhniki or “Social Realism” was critical of the social milieu and denounced the “evil” Tsarist period.

‘Malumbay si Ina’ (1979, oil, 36 in x 40 in.)

The Philippine social realists’ use of art as social critique predates that of the US

In the Depression-era America, the social realism art movement took place in the era between World War I and World War II. The movement included filmmakers, poets, photographers, painters, and cartoonists, all of whom were dedicated to representing real-life subject matter in their respective art forms. The Philippine social realists’ use of art as social critique, however, predates that of the US as it has important antecedents that date back as far as the Spanish colonial era.

University of the Philippines professor and art critic, Alice Guillermo wrote a book, Protest/Revolution Art in the Philippines, 1970-1990 in 2001, tracing the roots of Social Realism, and focusing on the Kaisahan group of artists and their Philippine art.

In 2019, veteran writer, journalist and biographer Amadis Ma. Guerrero followed it up with his book, Philippine Social Realists. It profiles 10 Filipino artists whose critique of sociopolitical realities of Philippine society is reflected in their work. Apart from Adi Baens Santos, they include Nunelucio Alvarado (b. 1950), Demetrio dela Cruz (b. 1971), Antipas Delotavo (b. 1954), Edgar Talusan Fernandez (b. 1955), Renato Habulan (b. 1953), Leonilo Doloricon (b. 1957), Imelda Cajipe-Endaya (b. 1949), Karen Ocampo Flores (b. 1966), and Jose Tence Ruiz (b. 1956). Sad to say, two of them passed away this year, Adi and Neil Doloricon.

‘Adi was consistent and passionate in his search for the ultimate truth and beauty….’

In the early ‘80s, Adi Baens Santos turned to the spiritual world. Noted sculptor Julie Lluch shares that Adi and she became renewed Christians at about the same time. She says, “That also marked the beginning of our friendship. There was no turning back from that irreversible, irrevocable commitment and Adi was consistent and passionate in his search for the ultimate truth and beauty, the supreme Summum Bonum! We had weekly Bible sessions for the past three decades or so. Beginning at Norma Liongoren’s gallery and in other venues.”

Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Fe Mangahas, Alma Miclat, Julie Lluch, Baens Santos on a visit with the ailing Norma Liongoren (seated, far left)

Historian and activist Fe Mangahas remembers meeting Adi for the first time in the early ‘80s when she gave a brief talk to artist activists as part of her UG work. “My talk was meant to encourage artists (from the performance and visual arts) to be part of the National Democratic Front with emphasis on the power of the arts in the course of the struggle. During the open forum, Adi asked whether it was necessary for artists to join the armed struggle. I answered no because their art is already their weapon in the revolution. To which he fully agreed and passionately practiced in his life and works.”

Church Cafe celebration at Liongoren Gallery (Baens Santos at extreme back)

Barbara Mae Dacanay talks about Adi in her work as a journalist covering the art world: “I have followed the works of Adi Baens Santos since he and several social realist artists started having art exhibits at the Hiraya Gallery in the mid-‘70s. It was the only gallery that initially opened doors for them. This allowed the world to see—in the mainstream art scene—the historical visual art development that the social realists ushered in the Philippines.”

Julie Lluch adds: “I remember the brilliant and eccentric art critic Jolico Cuadra raving about this young artist on his first exhibition. Adi painted canvasses with deep dark colors and deep sincerity. He knew his subject by heart; his subject is the Filipino people whom he depicted with great love and sympathy.”

Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, a painter and printmaker who has consistently explored the themes of national identity and people empowerment, gender and migration, has only high praises for Adi’s art: “Baens Santos’ canvases and murals are so powerful and searing. Highly principled and uncompromising, he was truly dedicated to political art. Though highly esteemed by his colleagues in the social realist movement, he is largely underrated perhaps because Adi is so soft spoken, humble. He is very deep and sharp in explaining and interpreting the Scriptures as applied in current issues.”

Adi came from an illustrious lineage. His maternal aunt, Felisa Baens, wrote Abakada ng Bataan which was our bible in school. Another aunt, Nieves Baens del Rosario, graduated valedictorian from Orani Elementary School where I also graduated. She went on to become a successful defense lawyer, civic leader, labor leader, and a prolific writer and novelist. Her writings delved on nationalism, on the patriotism of Rizal, and popularization of Filipino as a language. Of the many novels she wrote, Erlinda ng Bataan, about a woman who got separated from her boyfriend and disguised as a man, fought with the guerrillas for four years, became hugely popular.

Adi’s mother Emilia carried on the mantle as educator, while his father, a chemical scientist specializing in soil and sugar technology, had a laboratory and a thriving business distributing to drugstores tiki-tiki vitamins to cure beri-beri.

‘Alam nating hindi lang pamilya ang pinaglingkuran niya….pinagsilbihan din niya ang bayan’

Galileo S. Zafra, Ph.D,  University of the Philippines professor, noted literary historian and critic, translator, and Adi’s nephew, says of his treasured uncle: “Hindi na nakapag-asawa si Tito. May mga naging seryosong relasyon siya, naipakilala sila at na-integrate sa pamilya. Pinakahihintay naming event ang kaniyang kasal, okasyong hindi na nangyari. Noong una, ang sabi niya, ayaw niyang maging kargo din ng magiging asawa niya ang mga responsabilidad niya; nang yumao na ang Lolo at Lola, at nang huli, pati ang aking Tita, ayaw naman daw niyang maging tagapag-alaga ang asawa niya ng senior citizen na tulad niya. (Uncle did not marry. He had serious relationship/s and he introduced her to the family and became part of the family. We long waited for his wedding, which never happened. At first, he said he didn’t want his future wife to be burdened by his responsibility; when Lolo and Lola [Adi’s parents] passed on, and later my Aunt [Meg, his sick sister whom he took care of for many years], he still didn’t want to marry because he didn’t want his wife to take care of a senior citizen like him.)”


Leo, who laments the loss of his uncle who took care of him and his siblings and cousins, concludes: “Alam nating hindi lang pamilya ang pinaglingkuran niya. Sa pamamagitan ng kaniyang sining, pinagsilbihan din niya ang bayan… Sa pananaw namin, hindi mahirap pagtagpuin ang pagiging Kristiyano at pagiging aktibistang visual artist at manlilikha ni Tito Adi. Nagtatagpo iyon sa taimtim at tapat na paglilingkod sa kapwa at sa bayan. Ang pagiging Kristiyano ni Tito Adi ay naisabuhay niya. (We know he served not only his family. With his art, he also served the people… From our point of view, it is not difficult for Tito Adi to meld his being a Christian with being an activist, visual artist and creator. They meet in fervent and faithful service to his fellow human being and the country. He lived his life as a Christian.)”

About author


Alma Cruz Miclat is a freelance writer and member of Church Café, a Bible study group of artists, writers and historians pastored by Indian missionary Sunil Stephens. With ISACC -Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture headed by Melba P. Maggay, Ph. D, the group is celebrating Pablo Baens Santos’ life through a Zoom tribute on the 9th day of his passing on Dec. 2, 2021.

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