Saturday, March 19, 2011

Living Threads - 17 March

In transit now in Singapore, on my way back to The Netherlands, I think of my first meeting with Pung and Frog in the dye studio of the research foundation arm (YPBB) of Threads of Life. They were showing me how to make red dye using the roots of the Morinda citrifolia tree because I had never had the opportunity to see it done in the Batak area. The Batak stopped using that natural dye decades ago.

Ingredients in one of the red dye recipes

Frog working on a Morinda dye bath in the YPBB studio
Pung and Frog are seasoned field workers. They love to go into the villages and speak with the weavers. They are quiet and both are good listeners, respectful of local dynamics, styles and traditions. They like to get close enough to the weavers to become the recipients of stories about their youth. Often it takes awhile before a dye recipe bubbles up in their memory. (We noticed this with Ompu Okta. It emerges gradually. They need to have the opportunity and the encouragement to re-open memories of past weaving practices.) Rarely do Frog and Pung need to teach a dye recipe because they are unable to recover/uncover the local one. And, out of respect for local traditions, they never share a recipe if it has been given to them in confidence.
Pung’s and Frog’s knowledge is rich and varied. They know the trees and plants, the composition of the soils and the waters and the chemical reactions when all the components come together. With their knowledge, they could fill tracts and tomes and contribute so richly to the academic library on Indonesian weaving (including dyeing) traditions. But “writing up findings” is not their thing. Their first love is being in the field, experimenting with the recipes they learn about, assisting the weavers and making beautiful natural colours. They showed me the results of their failed experiments with a laugh. How much work it took to learn the basic proportions needed for a good dye and the factors that influence the variations!

Ever the academic, I felt regretful that this information and their stories were not being pegged down in writing and disseminated. But there is another side to it all. I am also aware that they are preserving knowledge in a different way. When I think about it, I believe it to be a more valuable way. The West would not need or have museums if indigenous worlds were not disappearing. Many of the activities of ethnographic museum flow from the understanding that it is important and possible to “preserve” indigenous traditions in storerooms and documentation systems, the academic formaldehyde for posterity, so that when the traditions disappear forever, there is at least a record of them. Pung and Frog, on the other hand, are reviving traditions. The dye recipes that they have discovered are not being pickled and described for a rarified Western audience, they are being cultivated once again in their cultures of origin. Dissemination happens when a mother teaches them to her daughter. They are dynamic traditions susceptible to change and renewal. I recall haviong felt a little confused when I realized that the successes of YPBB were taking the urgency out of the necessity to record everything for posterity.

I am an anthropologist who has been shaped by museums and steeped in their history – yet I was curiously elated when I realized that Pung and Frog were making part of the museum endeavour redundant. How brilliantly liberating! If cultural dye traditions were to live as vibrantly as Balinese orchestras in the face of modernity, if they were available for researchers to visit at any time, if indigenous traditions were not threatened but there was room for them and respect for them in the world…it is difficult to even contemplate… the world would be transformed into a living museum and the otherwise redundant buildings called “museums” could perhaps adopt a different interactive role in support of indigenous traditions. How invigorating, satisfying...

On the day that I left Bali (16 March), Frog and Pung left as well. They were heading for the Batak area carrying with them a bag of Morinda citrifolia root, their arsenal of knowledge and their sensitivity to culture. How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall as they work among the Batak. I am impatient to see their results, but they tell me the process is slow and I will have to wait for years. Impatience has no role in this process. If and when they succeed, Batak dye recipes will again be firmly rooted in a few communities, and the weavers will have Threads of Life as their market outlet making their efforts financially worth their while.

...As I post this blog from my office in The Netherlands (in the meantime, I have arrived back home) I have just received a message from Goodman Ompusunggu on Facebook telling me that the weavers in Muara have met Frog and Pung and are excitedly participating in a workshop with them. There is plenty of energy around this renewal of their weaving tradition....How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall....

...A week later, now. Jean Howe has sent me an email telling me about the findings and successes of Frog and Pung. Not surprisingly, the Batak have their own unique recipes with regional variations, and apparently the Morinda root in the Batak area is of high quality. There is great anticipation that soon a natural-dyed Batak textiles will enter the collection of Threads of Life.

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