LEAVING a conspicuous mark in the colorful yet competitive world of the arts is a daunting challenge. But Thomasian painter Arturo Rafanan Rabara had made an indelible dent not only in Philippine art but in the United States as well. Ironically though, he was given more recognition on foreign soil and it took his death for Filipinos to accord him the recognition he deserved as a major Filipino artist.

Born on May 13, 1938, Rabara hailed from Ilocandia, which has produced world-renowned visual artists such as Juan Luna, Esteban Villanueva, Macario Vitali, and Venancio Igarta.

As a young kid, Rabara showed creativity in little ways. As a shoe-shine boy, he crafted his own shoe box. In high school, he would do letterings for barangay fiestas. He also reaped honors in provincial and regional school art competitions.

In 1955, he entered UST and took up Fine Arts. As a student, he made his family and fellow Ilocanos proud through his achievements, one of which was his oil-on-wood “Sadyay Waig,” which won first prize in a national painting competition in 1958. This artwork bluntly portrays the natural beauty of Ilocos through the depicted lush vegetation and the nonchalantly traversing brook.

In UST, his expertise was further honed by apprenticing under his mentors who were to become national artists for visual arts, such as Vicente Manansala and Victorio Edades. He was also an apprentice of Galo Ocampo, another UST-based artist who would later become head of the then Department of Fine Arts of the Far Eastern University.

Graduated in 1959, Rabara based his practice in the North, where he became the first dean of the College of Fine Arts in the University of the Northern Philippines (UNP). His first major artwork was the 16-square-meter mural, “The Life of Saul,” which was installed at the entrance arch of the centuries-old Vigan Metropolitan Cathedral. The work had been commissioned by Bishop Juan Sison.


In 1996, he migrated to the United States.

Rabara’s creative legacy

Rabara’s contribution to the visual arts was so immense that the city government of Vigan, through Mayor Marie Medina, found it fitting to pay homage to his legacy through the tribute exhibit, “From Akoy to Atoy: The Life and Works of Arturo Rafanan Rabara.”

The exhibit, which ran until November 2, highlighted Rabara as a student, a family man, an educator, an Ilocano artist, and a proud Filipino in the American art scene. The exhibit featured a combination of original masterpieces, reproductions, and privately-owned collections.

To document Rabara’s paintings, a research team was formed, led by Oliver Rabara, the painter’s son and former dean of the College of Fine Arts in UNP. Members were Raymond Andres Palad, director of the GSIS Museum, and Antonio Zamora, a faculty member of UST College of Fine Arts and Design.

With the efforts of Mary Ann Venturina-Bulanadi, curator of the UST Beato Angelico Gallery, and Aurelio Francisco Jr. of the UST Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics as the exhibition assistant, the team put up and opened the exhibit last September 8 at the Vigan Culture and Trade Center Gallery Hall in line with the anniversary celebration of the declaration of Vigan as a Unesco World Heritage City.

Rabara made countless significant paintings such as “Fisherman’s Hut,” which shows the meager lifestyle of the natives. The careful juxtaposition of warm and cool hues renders much vibrancy to the painting.

Rabara’s “Premier University” is a tribute to his alma mater, UNP, the oldest state university north of Manila. The painting colorfully illustrates the developmental journey of UNP through time, presented in a montage of figures and symbols.

Inter Nos still cited as CMMA Hall of Famer

“The Heritage Village,” a 24×36-inch oil on canvas, indubitably shows how proud Rabara was of his roots and his distinction as an Ilocano artist. The artwork effortlessly shows Vigan in its sheer beauty, exuding Old-World charm.

On foreign soil

In 1996, when the Asian economic crisis was looming, Rabara decided to live in the United States. However, his stay abroad was more of a “retiree’s adventure” than a career step-up decision.

The United States gave his painting career a second wind through the ready acceptance and recognition of his works by Filipino and foreign art patrons in Washington State. His works were so appreciated that in 1998, September 11 was declared as “Art Rabara Day” by Mayor Paul Schell of the City of Seattle.

According to the 1998 Seattle City Proclamation, this was to honor Rabara for “his artistic heart, shining example, advocacy of helping people work together for common good, and his dedication of time and talent in improving the quality of life of the community.”

In America, Rabara’s most significant artwork is an 8×8 feet mural, “The Profile of the Filipino,” which earned him top prize over the works of 13 other nationalities that were pre-qualified in the finals of the Festal 2000 International Mural Painting Competition. This painting, which vividly portrays the Philippines’ rich history and close family ties, is now in the permanent collection of Seattle Center Pavilion.

Rabara’s legacy is not limited to his paintings. In fact, he founded the Filipino American Artists Circle in 2002 in order to unite Filipino and American artists.

Troubled waters

Rabara crossed to the other side after an operation for his aortic abdominal aneurysm in Auburn, Washington last July 3. He was 69.

On that same day, Rabara’s granddaughter, Nathalie Marie, dreamed of him seated on top of white clouds, holding a paintbrush and ready to paint a blank canvas resting on an easel.

Rabara left the ephemeral world but not without leaving an immortal artistic legacy that Filipinos and Thomasians in particular can truly be proud of.


    • Sany del Castillo

      This is such a weird thing to happen. I’m so sorry we were not able to respond to your heartfelt feelings for the loss of your Ninong Arthur.

      Sany thank you very much for remembering your Ninong. Please say something more about you. It seems I cannot really remember those days that you were together with your Ninong.

      Thank you Sany hope to hear from you.


  2. Meron po ba kayong picture/s ni Sir Arturo Rafanan Rabara at artworks/paintings niya? Kailangan ko po kasi yun for our project in Contemporary Arts


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