Ely Macaso: Indigenous artist preserves cultural heritage via NFTs

His cultural heritage permeates everything Ely Macaso does as an artist.

Ely Macaso: Indigenous artist preserves cultural heritage via NFTs

For Ely Macaso, a lumad (indigenous person) from Valencia City in the Province of Bukidnon in the Philippines, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) not only allow artists to earn a living. They are also a powerful digital platform for showcasing and preserving his cultural heritage.

"Malaking tulong talaga sa amin at sa akin ang pagsali sa mundo ng NFTs. Dahil dito maipapakita ko na ang aking mga obra hindi lang dito sa aming lugar kung hindi buong mundo ang kung ano ang aming kultura at tradisyon sa pamamagitan ng aking mga obra at sining. Dahil dito, nabibigyan ko na ng halaga ang aking mga ginagawa, na noon ay parang walang silbi lang para sa iba (Joining the world of NFTs has really helped me and other artists. Because of this, I can now show my works not only here in our area, but also let the whole world know about our culture and tradition through my works and art. Now my work has value, when before other people seemed to have no use for it)," Macaso told Digital Life Asia.

Bukidnon cultural heritage

His cultural heritage permeates everything Macaso does as an artist – from designing native clothing, to making bamboo carvings, to painting, to teaching folk dances.

Macaso explained that the cultural heritage of Bukidnon encompasses the province's seven tribes: Talaandig, Higa-onon, Umayamnon, Matigsalug, Manobo, Tigwahanon, and Bukidnon.  

"Ang aking tribo ay isang Bukidnon na naninirahan sa sentro ng Province of Bukidnon, ang Valencia City. Kahit nagkakaiba ang aming tribo, nagkakaisa kami sa paniniwala, kultura, at tradisyon. Kapag Marso, mayroon kaming pagdiriwang na tinatawag naming Kaamulan Festival o pagkakaisa, na ang pitong tribo ay nagtitipon-tipon para maipakita sa lahat ang aming pagmamahal at pagbibigay halaga sa aming tradisyon at kultura. At ang pitong tribo ay magpapakita ng kanilang iba't-ibang klase ng kanilang pamumuhay, mga produkto, kasuotan, sayaw, at talento (My tribe is a Bukidnon living in the center of the Province of Bukidnon – Valencia City. Even though we belong to different tribes, we are united in belief, culture, and tradition. In March, we have a festival that we call Kaamulan Festival or unity, where the seven tribes come together to show everyone our love and appreciation for our tradition and culture. And the seven tribes will showcase their different lifestyle, products, costumes, dances, and talents)," he said.

According to Macaso, he only had simple dreams as a child. Since they were poor, they would only eat twice a day. He was happy just being able to go to school with his siblings.

By the grace of God, he was able to enter college, becoming a working student. It was then that he started exploring his artistic talents, joining different art contests and dabbling in design. He graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Technical Teacher Education, majoring in drafting, and became a teacher for three years. He said this gave him the opportunity to give back to students and share with them what he knows. For the past six years, he has been working as a field worker in a government office.

"Pero hindi ko iniwanan ang aking kaalaman sa pag-preserba at pagmamahal sa aking kultura (But I never abandoned my knowledge of how to preserve and show my love for my culture)," he said.

When did Macaso first discover that he had the talent and passion for art?

"Bata pa lang ako, mahilig na akong gumagawa ng mga iba't ibang bagay. Kasi medyo hindi ako nabibigyan ng pagkakataon na makaranas ng magagandang mga laruan kaya't gumagawa na lang ako ng sarili kong mga laruan na katulad din ng sa kanila. At halos lahat ng aking mga kagamitan noon ako talaga ang gumagawa at nagde-design. Masaya naman ako sa aking mga ginagawa. Kahit hindi pa masyadong maganda pero para sa akin isang treasure na 'yun na hindi mo makikita kahit saan (Even when I was young, I loved making different things. Because I was not given the opportunity to experience beautiful toys, I just made my own toys that were similar to theirs. And I was the one who designed and made almost all of my tools. I was happy doing that. Even though it wasn't very beautiful yet, for me it was a treasure that you can't find anywhere else)," he said.

Embracing web3

According to Macaso, he does not know much about technology and digital art.

"Kahit nga sa cellphone hindi pa ako masyadong magaling sa paggamit. At hindi talaga ako sanay sa mga online activity (I'm not even very good yet at using a cellphone. And I'm not really used to online activities)," he said.

It was Reno Ramirez, founder of Support Local Talents Group Bukidnon and Bukidnon Visual Artists, who introduced Macaso to blockchain technology.

"Siya talaga ang nagkumbinsi sa akin na sumali kami sa blockchain technology para sa art. Dahil sayang daw ang aking mga obra na ginagawa sa aming lugar. Alam ni Reno dito sa aming lugar, hindi pa masyadong nabibigyan halaga o pansin ang aking mga ginagawang artwork (He was the one who actually convinced me to embrace blockchain technology for art. Because he said it was a shame that my works were not being recognized. Reno knows that here in our area, my artworks were not being given much value or attention)," he said.

According to Macaso, this is why NFTs have made such a big impact on art and artists.

"I guess isa ito sa malaking impact ng NFTs sa art at sa artist na tulad ko. Wider range o wider audience o market and parang nawawala na ang barrier kumbaga. Kasi sa traditional arts, kung sino lang ang may pangalan, sila lang 'yung nakakasali sa mga art exhibit (I guess this is one of the biggest impacts of NFTs on art and artists like me. Wider range or wider audience or market and the breaking down of barriers. Because in traditional arts, only those who have already made a name for themselves are the ones who can participate in art exhibits)," he pointed out.

Macaso said that it was Ramirez who became the administrator of his online activities. He also took charge of promoting Macaso's artwork and providing him with all the information and critiques he needed. This allowed Macaso to focus on his art, showcasing traditional art and his cultural heritage in digital form. He said he was very grateful to Ramirez for helping not only him, but also other local artists.

Minting his first NFT was a leap of faith, Macaso said.

"Medyo mahirap para sa akin ang first mint namin ni Reno kasi hindi ko pa alam kong matatanggap ba ang aking mga munting tradisyonal na obra sa mundo ng mga digital artwork (My first mint was a bit difficult for Reno and me because I didn't know if my traditional works would be accepted in the world of digital artworks)," he said.

Macaso said NFT artist Jopet Arias helped guide him and Ramirez, and also invited them to CryptoArt Philippines via Discord. Then, Titik Poetry Founder Verlin Santos, who was in Marawi, also visited Macaso and Ramirez in Bukidnon and gave them Tezos so they could do their first mint.

During Santos' visit, he also made a documentary about Macaso, which was also minted as an NFT on Tezos.

Aswang Tribe

Thanks to the Aswang Tribe, Macaso's artwork was also featured at Art Fair Philippines 2023. This year marked the first time the art fair included a section on digital art, including NFTs.

"I feel blessed and nakaka-proud. Kaya nga I'm forever grateful sa lahat ng tumutulong sakin. Thanks to Aswang Tribe and kay Sir AswangNFT. Kung hindi dahil sa kanya, wala ako doon (I feel blessed and it makes me proud. That's why I'm forever grateful to everyone who helps me. Thanks to Aswang Tribe and to Sir AswangNFT. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be there)," Macaso said.

"Hindi ko talaga akalain na ang aking mga obra ay makasama  sa mga bigating digital artist, at makasasali pa sa ArtPH. Bilang isang lumad, malaking karangalan na sa amin na mabilang ang aking sining sa larangan ng NFTs ArtPH. Kahit baguhan lang kami ni Reno, may mga ibang artist na rin na gusto kaming makilala (I never thought that my works would be included among those of great digital artists, and that I would get to participate in ArtPH. As an indigenous person, it is a great honor for us to have my art included in the NFTs ArtPH section. Even though Reno and I are newcomers, there are other artists who want to meet us)," he added.

The Aswang Tribe has been very supportive of Macaso, including featuring him in its Artist Spotlight.

They also invited him to guest on their Space.

Macaso was shocked when AswangNFT told him after the Space that the Aswang Tribe would give him a laptop and tablet so that he can continue making digital art.

It was Aswang Tribe member ryu who visited Macaso in Bukidnon to turn over the laptop and tablet.

Macaso is extremely grateful to everyone who has helped him in his journey as an NFT artist, including Henry Banayat, who bought his whole Datu series of 1 of 1 NFTs.

Asked what message he would like to share, Macaso replied: "Simple lang ang aking mensahe sa lahat ng mga artist at sa lahat nang gustong maibahagi ang kanilang istorya sa pamamagitan ng iba't-ibang larangan ng sining sa mundo ng digital artworks. Patuloy lang kung ano ang tama na magbibigay sa iyo ng kasiyahan at kapayapaan. Gawin mo hindi lang para sa iyong sarili. Isipin mo rin ang iba. Ang lahat ng iyong ginagawa gawin mo hindi lang para sa mga taong humahanga sa iyo. Gawin mo para sa taong gumawa sa iyo. Salamat po Sir Joey Alarilla sa pagbibigay sa akin ng pagkakataon na maibahagi ko ang aking istorya (My message is simple to all artists and everyone who wants to share their story through different fields of art in the world of digital artworks. Just keep doing what is right – that will bring you joy and peace. Do it not just for yourself. Think of others, too. Everything you do, do it not just for the people who admire you. Do it for the person who made you. Thank you, Sir Joey Alarilla, for giving me the opportunity to share my story)."

Through his art, Macaso is preserving his cultural heritage. Through NFTs, he is sharing it with the whole world.