This interdisciplinary artist shares with Tatler his journey in contemporary and digital art, which led him to be one of today's most popular Filipino NFT artists.

Animator-painter Bjorn Calleja mounts an eye-catching exhibition at this year's Art Fair Philippines, quite literally due to his signature style of enlarged or drooping eyes. Entitled Unknown Unknowns, Calleja's exhibition posits questions like "what do we know?" and "how do we face the unknown" through grotesque figurations of people, species, individuals, and more.

"My work plays on the tension of relationships within the elements of the paintings," he says. "The macabre disguised in fluorescent palettes, the controlled and the accidental approach to painting, forms that border both the familiar and the abstract, and the play on the scale between the minuscule characters populating the paintings and how they relate to the bigger picture," he explains.

As one of the represented artists of online art gallery a\terHEN, Calleja is also showcasing his NFT art this Art Fair PH 2022. "Some of these characters are also used as frames for my animations which I consider as an extension of the idea and as a separate artwork," he adds.

Read more: Art Fair PH 2022: Artists and Participating Galleries

Calleja earned his degree in Fine Arts from Far Eastern University, where he later became a part-time lecturer. Aside from exhibiting his work, his early career involved corporate jobs and stints as a graphic designer.

"I wasn't born to an environment that was exposed to the arts," Calleja shares. "Growing up, the only experience I had with art was from a single painting hanging in our home by an anonymous artist, a giclee print of Fragonard's A Young Girl Reading, my hobbyist aunt's sketches, and three volumes of The Book of Art—all of which never really made sense to me at the time," he recalls. "Much of the interest I had in drawing was seeded by watching cartoons and reading comic books. It was only in college when we started joining painting competitions when it registered to me that I could be an artist."

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Calleja is grateful to one of his professors Marcial Pontillas from FEU for introducing him to these painting competitions. He also identifies Manuel Ocampo as one of his heroes in the world of arts and has been a huge influence on his visual language. "His use of provocative iconography as commentaries articulates freedom in image-making, which I find evident in the raw and bastardised aesthetic of his work," Calleja comments.

Among the international visual artists he admires, James Ensor stands out. "His macabre yet carnivalesque paintings [inspire me creatively]. When I first encountered his Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, I felt something I couldn't explain, it opened me up to the possibilities of what can be beautiful," the artist shares.

Read more: Art Fair Philippines Goes Hybrid This 2022

"I have been making the animations before I got into NFTs," Calleja says. "I just liked the idea of movement and transformation adding another layer of meaning to my paintings, It just happened that a good friend introduced me to Hicetnunc, an eco-friendly and the first Tezos-based NFT platform, this was late March last year, we tried minting and eventually found a home for these looping GIFs," he recalls.

Read more: How to Make an NFT: A Simple Guide to Minting Your Own Artwork

Calleja's first minted works were under Tezos and to avoid risks and future problems, he created a HEN account as advised by James Paterson of Presstube. Eventually, Paterson became his first collector and one of the artists he looks up to in the NFT space. Paterson got Calleja's The Known/The Unknown, which was created with frames from paintings of the same title, and was also Calleja's first animation.

"I'm just glad to be a part of another art community, learning about other artists and their practices, and expanding the audience of my art," Calleja shares.

For Calleja, he puts art as a 'subtle power', as Katerina Gregos once said, 'that changes the world one perception at a time'. "Art is an attempt at communicating one's energy," Calleja says.

With the rise of NFT in the local art scene, Calleja is optimistic yet he believes that it's still in the early phase. "The space is still evolving and growing at a very rapid phase," he says. "Not every NFT art/artist/project will have cultural and monetary value in the future but I am pretty hopeful that it's not going to be just a trend but a platform for exhibiting and marketing digitally native and new media art."

With his exhibitions jumping in and out of the physical realm, thanks to Art Fair Philippines, he doesn't see NFT "competing with the physical galleries, [but] it is a movement of its own, finding its way into art history."


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