Simalungun was on the agenda for 20 October when we left our gracious hosts at DEL University. Every Batak region is special in its own way. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Simalungun, but enough to know that the crisis in the weaving tradition is very serious. During the opening of our textile exhibition, I wore a Simalungun textile because there were no Simalungun weavers represented in the exhibit. During the Back to the Villages project I had only seen one elderly weaver. Our meeting was fleeting. Now I wanted to find her and also the former bulang weaver depicted in Legacy and to whom I had given a copy of Legacy in cloth. I wanted to give Nashir a chance to work his magic there with his camera.
It was a wet, grey, cold day. First we found the elderly woman. I had not remembered that she lived in a vehicle repair shop. Literally. Now it is something that I will never forget. There were vehicles in various states of decomposition strewn around the yard and when I knocked on the door and peered into the house, I saw that the front room was being used as a garage. I wondered how anybody could call premises like those a home. I recognized the spot under the too-skimpy front eaves as the place where I had seen her weaving last year. The thin piece of plywood on which she sat and the little bench that she used to support her sword while weaving were still there. I then wondered whether that little bundle wrapped in cloth might be her loom. What shocked me most was that somebody had parked his motorcycle on top of that little piece of wood, but how would he recognize this as a place to weave? Imagining how the weaver must feel, I felt angry and hurt and tried to distance myself from these feelings to recognize the situation for what it was: the last weaver whose work and tradition was clearly not valued or respected. It was being crowded out by the more pressing business of her son’s vehicle repair shop. Probably his work brought in more money. This is the way a weaving tradition ends, I told myself.
The elderly woman appeared and at my urging unwrapped her bundle (after the man moved his motorcycle) and resumed weaving her bright red bulang.
Her son, a gentle, shy fellow with greasy black fingers, came and sat down beside us. He had seen the copy of Legacy that I had left with their neighbour and was curious about my interest in Batak cloth. He was aware that his mother was the last weaver of bulang textiles in the district, but not aware of its significance. I tried to impress upon him the age, complexity and uniqueness of her work and how highly I valued it. His response was a look of surprise, puzzlement, reflection. I thought that I detected some deep awareness that she was enacting an ancient tradition, but this may have been wishful thinking on my part. He seemed to display some shame or embarrassment about his lack of respect for her work.
I told him about Nashir’s book and how it was Nashir’s intent to raise awareness of what is happening to indigenous Indonesian culture. He thumbed through it; he was curious about its contents but he said that he could not afford the $10 that it cost. I told him to just give us what he could afford and I would be happy to subsidize the purchase because I really wanted him to have it. Planting another seed?
I gave him a gift of a Dutch handkerchief which he was delighted to immediately tie around his head. He and all of the men in his repair shop seemed happy and honoured by our visit. I gave his mother a crocheted doily explaining that it was the craft of a Dutch grandmother. She was mystified by the gift because she couldn’t imagine what it could be used for. There really wasn’t a place for such an item in a motorcycle repair shop.