Monday, February 01, 2010

Shared Cultural Heritage

I wrote Legacy in Cloth with Batak weavers in mind and the many, many other Batak who showed me hospitality, kindness and patience. I always find it problematic when anthropologists don't take the time and trouble to show their " products" to the hosting populations who gave them their information in the first place, hence my plan to return the weaving heritage to Batak villages in the form of this book.

Of course such a plan has pitfalls, e.g. the errors and misplaced emphases in my book can take on a life of their own. However, what never occurred to me -- perhaps because I never dreamed that the book would be published as lavishly as it was -- was that the book might also engender some wariness amongst Batak readers. I SHOULD have thought of this. After all, while doing my fieldwork, when I showed photographs of museum pieces to the villages in North Sumatra, their reactions were mixed, everything from awareness of unfairness: " How do you get access to these things while we don't? " to distrust, " No, we never wove that way." to covetousness " Please give me the picture when you leave because I find it inspiring." With this book, I wanted to give all Batak the opportunity to own all of the photographs. As I said, this desire was born of my thankfulness to my hosts.

There aren't many copies of the book yet in North Sumatra (the first shipment got held up for 4 months in customs) and I haven't had much opportunity to observe reactions to it yet. However, I already notice a recurring theme, viz. perplexity tinged with scepticism. I am the "belanda" or the " orang asing" who wrote the definitive book about an element of Batak heritage. That doesn't sit right. It was alright to ask my Batak friends and acquaintances for information about their heritage, but who am I to GIVE the Batak information about their heritage?

I also hasten to point out that it is designers like Merdi Sihombing who will take Batak textiles into the future and give the art a niche in modern life. I hope with all my heart that my book might be useful to people like him. If it can contribute to any form of maintenance or revival of the art, then I will be satisfied and happy.

But there is another side to this story. Acknowledging the fact that the Batak weaving arts belong unquestionably to the Batak and that nobody can legitimately appropriate them, then there is still the fact that hundreds of Batak woven textiles have found their way into museums in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, USA, Denmark....where they have been tended (many of them for a century or more), exhibited, researched, documented, used in demonstrations, researched and written about -- essentially played a variety of roles in Western history and culture. Moreover, by virtue of transfer -- through some form of exchange or gift-giving -- they are now " owned" by the West and have become, consequently, part of Western heritage. They are testimonials to relationships of all kinds: colonial, tourist, artistic, familial...

My book, Legacy in cloth is therefore about a Western as well as a Batak cultural heritage. I enjoy the irony that despite the suspect origins of Western museums and my discipline of anthropology, quite unbeknownst to the original collectors (and to writers like myself) our efforts can now be appropriated and used by the original hosting cultures to their own advantage, however they deem fit.
To my Batak friends, I say: I do not have the last word. Write your corrections on the pages! Use this book for inspiration! Argue with its premises! Remould it to make it fit your needs! I have written my insights derived from my experiences and I will continue to do that. The heritage that I have written about is not only shared between North Sumatra and North America and Northern Europe, but with the whole world. Let us build together on the legacies of our respective ancestors.

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