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The Past and Present of Cagayan Arts and Literature

The Aggao nac Cagayan (Cagayan founding anniversary) celebration this year ended with the annual conduct of the Cagayan Arts and Creative Writing Awards (CACWA), a contest where Cagayanos could display their talent in the field of fine arts and literature. 

Such avenues for the showcasing of creativity appears to be an expanding movement, as the participants for this year’s contest has reportedly increased compared to the previous events. This is still apart from the growing number of art exhibits being held in Tuguegarao City and across the province of Cagayan. 

Though the stimulation of such activity can be attributed to the support and initiative enthusiastically provided by the Cagayan provincial government, through its cultural arm, the Cagayan Museum and Historical Research Center, the talent, skill, and creativity of Cagayanos are innate.

Visual art is not a modern concept among the people of Cagayan, nor a foreign influence.  

If one would browse through the precious little historical documents we have on Cagayan culture, he or she might be surprised to discover that before the Spanish period, natives were already chanting, performing, designing, and crafting. 

According to Spanish records, some of which are written as early as the 17th Century, the native peoples of Cagayan, particularly the Ibanag, possessed industries and customs where their creativity materialized. 

For the Ibanag, designing involved symmetry and uniformity which were reflected in the term paggitta. Even the old native terms for drawing, painting, or engraving– mangalli’ and mamuri’, though may be freehand, are derived from the roots, kalli’ and vuri’ respectively, which may also refer to linear figures.

Symmetry was applied to produce patterns, which were ultimately derived from the Ibanag’s environment– from plants, mountains, including body parts. Even the colors used in crafting were naturally derived. Hence, designing was also referred to as apparigan, the root word of which, arig, meant to derive, base, imitate, or copy from.  

Ibanag design patterns documented by the Spaniards were zigzags or lassigassing (gitigiteting in Itawit), stripes vurivuri’ (inallad in Itawit), and obscure symbols like the tallafuki, an icon based on the female genitalia. Anthropomorphic designs, or inatolayan, and octopus-sucker patterns or kinugita, were applied on earrings and gold jewelry. 

Perhaps the most notable application of these patterns could have been seen in the Ibanag’s traditional textiles, if their weaving industry was still alive today. Specifically, Ibanag textile patterns included the nammata-mata (minata in Itawit), a diamond or eye pattern that is also common in the Ibanag’s neighboring ethnic groups like the Itawit and the Cordillera groups. Richly designed textiles, were known as kinumi’ in Ibanag, and were used as status symbols, particularly the striped gaddun overskirts of noble women. 

Textile designs were skillfully woven through the alternating combinations of cotton threads, which were dyed using natural plant-based pigments such as red or labba, yellow or kunig, and black or indigo or gunab, or were left in their natural white color. 

Another application of patterns derived from nature was tattooing, or was known as bato’ in Ibanag (batak in Itawit). Ibanag tattoos, which were exclusively for warriors, were applied on the hands using a fern pattern or appaku, the only tattoo design yielded by records so far. 

Other crafts where patterns could have been incorporated were vine-weaving for baskets, smithing, and even architecture, where the Ibanags’ skill could have turned geometrical concepts– circles or sibbukal, triangles or siggulud, quadrilaterals or mabbangan, midpoints or aba’, angles or tungu into complex masterpieces through the expert integration of  indigenous metric methods. 

Literature, per se, appears to be non-existent among the ancient Ibanag though they possess a term for writing or tura. Instead, storytelling was performed, and tales were passed down orally, often in chanted forms or unini. A pakkaw, a tale of warriors’ exploits was performed after their successful homecoming, while a bannan, recounts the life of a deceased as tribute. 

Similarly, the Itawit once widely practiced the dallogay, a chanting tradition that gave tribute to a person– the same chanting form that related the story of the epic heroes of Cagayan Valley, Biuag and Malana. 

The influence of the Spaniards made the Ibanag and Itawit develop colonial-period story-telling traditions. This could be in chanted poetry such as the verso, or simple pastime narratives or folktales or bida. While simultaneously, the pre-colonial term unini eventually transformed into the modern unoni, which could either mean poem, proverb, or lullaby.

The oral nature of these cultural facets mean that they have a higher risk of being forgotten since they are not documented. Fortunately, scholars and organizations such as the Cagayan Heritage Conservation Society have begun to study and record these forms and practices in order to preserve them and make them available for potential revival.

It can be said that the adoption of Western literary and art forms, which are now popular among Cagayanos, have not totally replaced native oral traditions, as they themselves can become vessels in which indigenous culture can be promoted, possibly in the form of fusion-genres. 

This is the goal of the CACWA to begin with, in which artists and writers create short stories, paintings, sculptures, and photographs that depict the rich cultural heritage, the languages, history, and provincial identity of Cagayan. 

Outside the conduct of the CACWA, Cagayano talent and creativity in the visual arts have begun to take flight earlier through the formation of artists’ organizations such as the Cagayano Artists Group, Inc. in the late 1990s. Moreover, new art forms such as films are slowly entering the mainstream due to the success of films such as Cleaners (2019) and establishment of collectives such as the North Luzon Cinema Guild in 2015. 

As regards the present literary scene in Cagayan, individual initiatives and successes revolve around the incorporation of language preservation and revitalization of threatened languages as seen in the children’s book Papa Teyo (2021), and Pallipay: An Ibanag Anthology (2022).

More recently, the Cagayan Museum and Historical Research Center, not only being a hub for academic research, has begun to act as the nexus for all these cultural activities in the province. With its support, the arts and literary scene in Cagayan could potentially be stimulated and maintained in an active and progressive state. Even performing arts such as music and dance could even be subsumed in the movement, and perhaps, that would be a story for another time.

Cagayano creativity has gone a long way, from indigenous roots to foreign influences, and a combination of both. And now, with the way things are, it seems that its future will be as bright as its past and present. (OTB/JKC/PIA Region 2) 

About the Author

Jan Karl Coballes

Regional Editor; Research and Development Officer; Tuguegarao City Information Center Manager

Region 2

Ibanag. Writer. Researcher. Ethnographer. Ethno-historian. Graduate student focusing on linguistic and cultural anthropology.

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