Wednesday, March 06, 2013

5. It's about Pride and Knowledge

In my official description of Back to the Villages / Pulang Kampung III, I write that an intangible outcome of the project for which we strive is the immeasurable good called ‘pride’. I cite William Ingram, one of the founders of Threads of Life in Bali, in his TEDx talk, “Where there is pride in identity, traditions get passed on from generation to generation.” In other words, we want to get to the generative heart of the maintenance and revival of Batak weaving.

I have to admit that one of the things that moves me the most in this world is when I see someone awakened by pride. Perhaps this is my single, most powerful memory of Pulang Kampung I. I watched weavers look at the corpus of Batak textiles and become confronted and moved by the beauty of their own weaving tradition. I get goose bumps even just thinking about it. Weaving today gives no status and no glory in Indonesian society, and it generates next to no income. Weavers, while they know how difficult and complex their art is, feel no pride in their skills. They are more likely to feel shame. To be a weaver indicates that you have no education and no money.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the marketing of Batak textiles. If marketed cleverly, the weavers would be able to derive sufficient income from their skills, perhaps even a good income. But the uneducated poor in the society are not in a position to discover and create a good market.

I am not the one to find new markets or to exhort Batak weavers about what they should and should not do.  What I can do is share the results of my anthropological work together with my sense of admiration for their traditions. I am eternally sad that weavers feel little pride in their work. This is why I want to give them recognition. I want to see their faces bloom in smiles and their energy soar. 
Nai Arta, Silindung Valley,
Photo by MJA Nashir, 2010
I love her smile. She has woven so diligently throughout the years.

When that happens, the rest will happen by itself: young people will take up the art; schools and universities will know that indigenous techniques are also worth teaching; consumers will pay more for the products of weavers and weavers will try harder to make beautiful cloths. They will take it upon themselves to explore marketing avenues and options; textile artists will go international with their innovative pieces.

I know that pride is closely related to knowledge. To know about Batak textiles is to love them. Our film, Rangsa ni Tonun, offers the audience a tiny bit of insight into the complexity of backstrap weaving. It also offers a tiny bit of insight into the Batak literary tradition because it is based on a text committed to paper in 1872 by a guru who was a traditional literary specialist. The Batak have no access to this text; I found it in the archives of the VEM in Wuppertal, Germany. When it returns to North Sumatra in the form of our film (and yes, I will also hand out photocopies of the original text to all who would like a copy of it) it will be cause for celebration. Every villager who watches the film will learn that weavers a century ago were admired and their skills were understood as having come from a goddess. This little bit of knowledge is reason enough to feel immense pride.

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