Monday, October 07, 2013

"Why do you love Batak Textiles?"

I was interviewed many times during the Pulang Kampung III journey in which my team brought our film, Rangsa ni Tonun to the Batak area. The first question when I was interviewed was always, “Why do you love Batak textiles?”  I found this question difficult to respond to in a sound bite while standing on a windy field, hence this note.

I once impatiently answered in return, “What does it matter? The Pulang Kampung expeditions are not about me and my likes and dislikes, they are about the repatriation of material and intellectual culture. What I love is not the point.”

Was I wrong?

Many interviewers seemed poised to have a truth unveiled, the microphone pointed expectantly at my mouth. In the not too distant past, white-skinned newcomers entered the region and said that the textiles and most of the rest of Batak culture were of the devil. The White Man’s views achieved dominance through the hegemony of the new church and state. Sometimes I sense that only a white-skinned newcomer can release the culture-bearer from the burdensome yoke that my ancestors placed on them and, like a kiss from the prince, awaken them to the beauty of their own culture. These textiles have value, I say; do not underestimate them! What makes you love them? they press in return. Tell us what it is! They have been taught that modernity has value, not indigenous culture. Why does this white woman spend so much time, money, energy, so much of her life, on this textile tradition? What on earth does she see in these cloths?

Beautiful supplementary warp. Are there any weavers left
who know how to do this?
I could have waxed lyrical about the complex, beautifully executed, supplementary warp patterning (jugia) that is sometimes found in old textiles. I love the innovative combinations of supplementary weft (jukkit) and ikat. I love the way the same patterns are sometimes executed in all of the textile techniques in a single cloth: ikat, supplementary weft and warp and twining. I love the clever ways that weavers have adapted external influences and ‘Batakized’ them on their backstrap looms. I love the micro-regional traditions that used to be so vibrant, yielding ever so slight differences in weaving equipment and the resultant textiles. I love the deep, ancient colours that were obtained by methodical hard work, knowledge of nature and infinite patience. I love the way weavers once had the latitude and the opportunity to express their creativity at their looms. I love that I had the opportunity to work with Ompu ni Sihol and to catch a glimpse of how a textile was made in pre-colonial culture. But how could I share all of that when the people who were interviewing me probably didn't know the fine details of the old textiles and the names for the techniques that constructed them? The tradition is dying.

Beautiful ikat. Nobody makes this anymore.
How quickly and radically things have changed! I confess that I don’t like the brightly coloured, modern Batak textiles with gold yarn that are made on ATBM looms. I find them gaudy. They make me sad. I see in them the careless, simplified, purely market-driven dead end of a rich and dignified heritage. This is not the part of the tradition that I love. But it may be all that the reporters are familiar with. Hence their question, perhaps? Hence my difficulty in responding.

But even my admiration for Batak weaving techniques and patterning could not have sustained me for all of these years were it not that they opened a window onto something much larger that never ceases to fill me with awe: the entire complex and tradition of Indonesian weaving. There are a few places on the world’s surface where weaving has attained a dazzling height of complexity and achievement. The Indonesian archipelago is one of those places.The weaving of the Batak people of Sumatra is a small, though very special, variant in that giant corpus of Indonesian weaving.

A stunning bintang maratur ikat. This textile is no longer made.
This makes Batak weaving all the more precious. Its distinct and special value emerges when it is juxtaposed with all of the other traditions in the archipelago. The value of the Indonesian textile tradition as a single, great complex is greater than the sum of the weaving traditions that comprise it. Each individual tradition is a building block or a link in the mesh. Each gains additional meaning from that larger whole and contributes to the fabric of that larger complex. Only as an assemblage is it complete. When people ask me why I love Batak textiles, one of my stock answers is that my focus on Batak textiles is a fluke of fate. I could have chosen any of the textile traditions in the Indonesian archipelago. All are rich. All are deserving of deep scrutiny within a comparative context.

Frankly, I am dismayed that UNESCO chooses to select bits and pieces (batik, Sumbanese weaving) to promote as intangible world heritage. This well-intentioned attempt to preserve the finest cultural contributions in fact demonstrates how little UNESCO knows about what is special about the weaving culture of Indonesia. Its recognition of pieces of the whole undermines momentum to recognize that larger whole. By focusing on the individual pieces of the puzzle, UNESCO fails to see the larger image. There is a need to recognize and protect the entire complex.
Only a simple twined edge, but so well made and the colours blend beautifully.

Through my own work I do what I can to raise awareness of the value of the Batak tradition. My means are limited. I have no institutional backing and no source of funding. (I am very lucky to have the loyal support of MJA Nashir who understands and shares my vision and goals and hugely augments my ability to pursue them.) The Batak tradition is more than rich enough in all of its facets to fill my anthropological career. Research of the Indonesian textile tradition is a multi-person project.

An ikat pattern that is no longer made. It combines three different ikat patterns.
Combination of supplementary weft and ikat. Soft and beautiful.
Sometimes I want to answer the question of why I love Batak textiles by invoking an even larger context. I want to point out that it is not Batak textiles per se that I love. Rather, I am committed to doing what I can to make room in this world for indigenous culture. The world is in deep crisis. Indigenous cultures are endangered. Languages and cultures are disappearing at an ever-increasing rate. Contrary to what some Batak people think and thank me for, my intent is not to “promote Batak culture outside Indonesia”. Instead, I confront people, and especially Batak people, with the fact that Batak culture is a victim of so-called progress. The spectacular cultural accomplishments of the Batak people are diminishing daily. Do I feel love for this? No, I love the possibility of cultural diversity. I feel horror, sadness, disgust at cultural loss. Will the Batak people choose to nurture, protect and promote their own cultural contributions or will they continue to turn their backs so that they can march to the drum of modern materialism? To my mind, a well-made Batak textile has greater and more lasting value than a Mercedes Benz fresh off the assembly line, but my views are not supported by the global economy. Will the Batak safeguard their cultural identity? How will they do it if they choose to do it? It is a huge challenge and it faces all of the indigenous peoples of the world.

An unusual sibolang ikat. This is the only one I know.
An individual weaver's creative impulse?
Thankfully she had the time to experiment.
During my first ‘Back to the Villages’ project, I gave a copy of my book, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia (2009) to a weaver and I watched her reaction. She ran an emotional gauntlet. The book confronted her with the fineness of the textile achievement of her culture and simultaneously with its loss. Memories surfaced. The book made her silent. Another weaver said she felt happiness on the one hand and pain on the other when she witnessed the achievements of her culture. My original intent was just to say thank you to the weavers by giving them my book. I am an anthropologist. It is my obligation to give my research results to the people about whom I conduct research. I had not reckoned on the impact that the return of cultural heritage would have. This is not about objects, not just about cloth. This is about identity, hearts, minds, memories, the sense of the past and the future.



  1. truly amazing cultural diversity, thank u for all of your efforts :)

  2. Sandra it was lovely to meet you at SOAS. I am ashamed I did not get a chance to look at your book, I have been reading your blog and have only now got a sense of its scope.

    I feel the 'white-skinned newcomer' line is a bit of a Western liberal cliché, it seems to me that 'brown-skinned newcomers' were more influential, in that the Muslim Batak retain much less of their culture, and there is a general Islamist/nationalist pressure that tends to homogenize Indonesia outwards from Java. The pace of change since independence under 'brown' rule far outpaces the changes the centuries of Dutch influence over Indonesia.

    It seems to me that we in the West can still buy clothes resembling those of centuries gone by, albeit that they are probably now made in an Indonesian sweatshop rather than by a local craftsman, and handcrafted textiles are reserved for the very wealthiest and in styles befitting the relative high cost - when you can clothe your children for £5 or £10 in mass-produced clothing, there is no appetite for a local tailor who will make them something for £200.

    Likewise I would not expect ordinary Batak to invest their money in the labour of handmade textiles when education and medicine remain to be paid for.

    I feel that a general understanding that rustic artisanal methods are of higher quality, and financial value, than sophisticated modern machine methods is some way off. There is still an appetite for modernity - whereas wealthy Westerners have come full circle and are riding bicycles, young Indonesians want nothing more than to take out a fat loan on a new motorbike.