Thursday, June 14, 2012

Text of my Opening Talk in Gallery Victoriastadt, Berlin

...celebrating cultural legacy

 Ladies and Gentlemen, Girls and Boys,

Welcome to our exhibition of the textiles of the Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia. These people live around a magnificent lake in mountainous terrain. The photographs will give you a sense of the ancestral home of the Batak people.

The textiles in this exhibition are not for sale; only the photographs are for sale. These textiles formed the basis of a book about Batak textiles that is present for you to examine and to order if you would like a copy (Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia).

The textile tradition of the Batak people is one of the most ancient in the Indonesian archipelago.  It is thousands of years old. Currently weaving is in drastic decline. There is reason for concern that it may die out. The textiles that you see in this exhibition are old. They are no longer made with natural dyes and hand spun yarns and many of the techniques are disappearing.

Indigenous peoples everywhere in the world are in crisis. The global economy leaves no room for their "alternative" lifestyles. Weaving makes no sense any longer, financially, socially or even spiritually, for most people. It used to be that life for the Batak was unthinkable without textiles to accompany them every moment in their lives and during every ritual. The hand woven textiles were used to clothe the people's bodies and also to protect their souls.

Mrs. Hillary Clinton said, "It takes a village to raise a child." I would like to adapt her concept and say, "It takes the global village to maintain an indigenous art tradition."  We are thankful to the Gallery in der Victoriastadt for this opportunity to share Batak textiles with you. I believe that we share the responsibility for maintaining this glorious weaving tradition.

MJA Nashir, the Indonesian who made the photographs in the exhibition, and I, started to work together two years ago. I brought forty copies of my extensive documentation of Batak textiles, based on thirty years of research and fieldwork, to weavers in North Sumatra. Most of their heritage textiles have been sold to tourists, collectors and dealers. Through my book, they were able to see the full repertory of their weaving tradition. Most of them were amazed at the beauty of their tradition. Most young people have never seen the textiles that you see hanging in this gallery.

The gift of my book has led to a revival of Batak weaving in one village. The people believed that it was too valuable to allow to disappear. Mas Nashir and I have witnessed over and over again how important it is for people in the villages to have access to information about their cultural heritage. Most of the Batak intelligentsia have left the villages to go to the cities. The young people aspire to leave and not to weave.

Mas Nashir has written a book about our travels. You will see it here on display: Berkelana dengan Sandra: Menyusuri Ulos Batak. It is in Indonesian. In it, he shares his insights into the importance of repatriating cultural knowledge. His book is doing very well among Batak people who feel moved by this recognition of their culture. When he finished writing his book, we returned to the Batak area to give copies to the people about whom he wrote.  To our mind, there is an ethical imperative in ensuring that the people whom we study and about whom we write, receive copies of the information that we produce.

Mas Nashir and I have also made a film together, Rangsa ni Tonun. It is about Batak weaving techniques and it is based on a text that was written by a member of the Batak intelligentsia almost 150 years ago. The Guru explains the spiritual origin of weaving. The Batak believed that weaving was passed down from the gods.  This film will be shown tomorrow night in the Indonesian Embassy of Berlin. It starts at 18.00 (six p.m.). We hope that you will be able to attend. There will be a short introductory lecture, the film is a half hour in length, and then there will be time for a discussion and snacks.

Mas Nashir and I plan to bring this film to North Sumatra. We will travel with our computers and a screen and we will show the film in village after village. In this way, we will restore to the Batak people the ancient Batak text -- now found only in archives in Germany and Holland -- and, just as important, celebrate the weaving arts.

Until now, Mas Nashir and I have had no funding to do our work. I have used my savings and my pension and all proceeds from my book.  Friends and other people who believe in our work have also helped us in a variety of ways. We have decided to look for corporate support. We hope that we will be successful because I am no longer able to continue on my own resources.

Mas Nashir is brilliant not just as a photographer, filmer and writer, but also in maintaining relationships with people. He has developed a large community on Facebook, mostly Indonesian people, who follow what we are doing. While most of them are not with us tonight, there are hundreds of people in Indonesia who know about this opening in Victoriastadt and are with us in spirit. Our Batak friends are very proud about this exhibition of their culture.  We invite you to join our Facebook site. You will find it under MJA Nashir. My Facebook name is Sandra Niessen and I live in Oosterbeek (Netherlands).

I also keep a blog in which I share my Batak adventures.
I invite you to look it up and join me. It is part of my website, kindly donated to me by Pamela Cross, my dear friend in England. (Please see her own important forum for aficionados of indigenous textiles:

If you would like more information or you would like to get in touch with us, please feel free to send me an email or to contact me by telephone:
Mobile Phone: 31- 6 22 50 66 46
In closing, I would like to thank Joachim Blank for faithfully organizing our Berlin events at TAB and here in Victoriastadt, and also next week in Cologne. He saw our exhibition in Jakarta and recognized it as something that would interest a Berlin audience. Then he invested his energy to make it happen.

I would also like to thank Mrs. N. Wolters who has been willing to have my textiles fill her gallery space even though they are not for sale. She also kindly donated our booth at Textile Art Berlin.

Thankfully, both of these people understand the importance of textiles beyond their commercial value.

The Indonesian Embassy in Berlin and the Department of the Secretary of State in Indonesia have made it possible for MJA Nashir to come to Berlin and they have helped to defray some of our costs. We are extremely grateful for this assistance.

Thank you again for joining us tonight. Thank you for forming a community of support for indigenous textiles.

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