Cover Rocky Cajigan

CCP Thirteen Artists awardee 2021 Rocky Cajigan is one of the few contemporary artists today who proudly infuses his works—both in local and international scenes—with indigenous roots and relevant social realities. Read on to know more about the artist

"I didn't go to art school. Let's start there," renowned Filipino multimedia artist Rocky Cajigan says as he bluntly opens the conversation. Indeed, the CCP Thirteen Artists 2021 awardee, recipient of the 2020 Portfolio Art Award, and 2016 Ateneo Art Awards' Fernando Zóbel prize for visual art, among others, is one of the few young and renowned artists today who continue to prove that the arts scene is open to all.

Born in 1988 in Mountain Province, Cajigan is a Bontoc Igorot artist and writer who finished a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Saint Louis University. It might have been his destiny to become one of today's finest artists, having him bravely choose a different career path. Nevertheless, he has made it this far with nothing but passion, hard work, and sheer determination.

"I went from working for an environmental non-profit [organisation] to collaborating with Baguio artists and writers," Cajigan recalls. "The experimental-ephemeral art and writing projects were challenging," he admits. "I was moving from secretarial work to project management to being forced to co-program art projects without a lot of experience. It was like walking over embers," he says.

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Thanks to that immersive experience, Cajigan discovered and understood better the world of visual and literary arts. He briefly explains that the Baguio art community taught him primarily the significance of diversity and openness. "Meeting and working with Kawayan de Guia, Angel Shaw, the Ubbog Cordillera Writers, and the many artists he met in Baguio [even some who are not particular about being called as such] taught me that there are many ways to move forward in the art ecosystem with just a bit more kindness and that it can be sustainable," Cajigan shares further.

The artist collective in Baguio that Cajigan was involved in was called AX(iS) Art Project. It was in February 2011 when this non-profit group was founded and Cajigan was among its secretariat. It is focused on programming events that study access to contemporary art in communities in the Cordillera region. And for his part, "I sold beers, asked for signatures, wrote artists' bios, etc." for an art festival of that same year featuring 150 artists from Baguio, among many other projects. "Looking back, it was too much for people to handle," Cajigan admits. "I also just got back to university so I was a mess. But it was where I got to know Kawayan, who was spearheading the project."

Eventually, things began to brighten up for Cajigan in the group's endeavours. "The caravan projects in the next years where we put up art activities along the Halsema Highway and on to Ifugao was a very interesting time," he recalls. "It was where we tested so many questions about what 'community,' 'indigeneity,' and 'contemporary art,' meant in real-world 'making', and without the sharpness of knowledge-based action," he explains further. "I don’t think we were really seeing it like that at the time. We made mistakes but we also laughed a lot. We were sure about ending AX(iS) at the critical point where it sounded like an actual name."

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As a multimedia artist, Cajigan's works range from painting, assemblage, and installation. He draws influences from his Kankanaey and Ifontok heritage, the rich pre-colonial culture of the Cordillera region where he grew up and lives in, and the current socio-political situations. His indigenous roots "form and inform" his art, Cajigan explains. "That includes all of the psychological complexities involved in being singled out as having that," he says, then later explains his creative process. "It’s the time I devote to disentangling issues, doing some form of research, and making sure I am not lying to myself. Then the work just naturally forms."

Being a champion of contemporary art rooted in indigenous roots, Cajigan comments that for an artist to render works that are properly for cultural appreciation, "the burden lies in transactional relationships. Self-awareness and good intent are not enough."

Indeed, being both an indigenous artist and a cultural worker propelled Cajigan to do more for the arts and not simply use them as mere references. In an essay written by Abigail Bernal for Asia Pacific Art Papers, she wrote: "The combination of these roles indicates a way to both integrate [Cajigan's] community and celebrate its uniqueness, as well as navigate the challenges faced at a time in which market forces are superseding an artwork’s original cultural significance, and yet, adaptation is necessary for survival."

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Having seen a few of his installation projects for Art Fair Philippines and just recently at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, I find his works mysterious and eerie giving visitors an enveloping rush of emotions. His "Sanctum", "Pater Noster", and "Mass" draw inspiration from religious practices and pre-colonial heritage that are not only interesting to see but also open discussions about relevant themes like museology, indigeneity, and material culture.

Asking if he is deliberately abstracting social constructs and structures like religion and the government, Cajigan contrasts: "It's not really abstracting but revealing the rigour it takes for power to be born. In form, 'contemporary art' somehow always paints an aesthetic of abstraction over the work. But I’d like to think that the issues I’ve derived from still remain." Through the years, Cajigan's artistry evolved but remains true to his distinctive touch, and colour palette—all because of his developing take on these issues and themes. "There are always changes in perception as more ideas are consumed but what kind of individual identities are formed if we are not always looking at the ethics of power structures?" Cajigan asks.

Ultimately, it is not the burnt wood, hair strands, or the found objects Cajigan wanted the viewers to only see in his installations. "I want them to reflect on themselves," he says.

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