A remarkable Batak textile fell out of the skies and into my lap. It is a beautiful, old Simalungun bulang, very fragile. It’s previous owner, Nancy Barr, lives in Alaska. Years ago she found me on the internet and asked me the provenance of this cloth that she had purchased on e-Bay. And now she has bestowed me with it claiming a change in her circumstances – and also out of respect for my work. I had forgotten the details of that cloth from years ago, but when I opened the carefully wrapped package, I had to pinch myself. It was a Simalungun bulang. And the bulang used to be made in Lasma’s village, Nagori Tongah. It felt like I had received a message, but a message that I didn’t quite know how to fully interpret.
|This bulang is handspun and dyed with the plant called mangkudu.
The photograph gives a sense of its worn fragility but also the soft faded
colour and the beautiful weave
This bulang feels precious, like a sacred trust. I have no bulang like it in my collection. It is made of handspun yarns that are dyed with natural dyes and I certainly long to be “the owner”. But it doesn’t feel quite right to just store it with my other textiles. Surely it is destined for greater things. It is fraying at the edges and there is a hole in it. It has had a long life and has been well used on top of having travelled internationally. Surely the textile has come to me for a special purpose.
Last August I went to Indonesia. It would be a busy trip but I was able to arrange things so that I could spend a week in North Sumatra to be with my daughter, Lasma. I couldn’t resist bringing the textile with me. What would Lasma think of it? I went straight to her village upon landing.
I carefully rolled and wrapped the bulang so that it would not be damaged by the journey. When the right moment came, I unrolled it. And there it was, back home. This cloth that had once been worn everyday by a Simalungun woman (perhaps it had been worn by its weaver) was back in Simalungun. More than a century ago when the cloth was made, women in many Simalungun villages would have woven the bulang. There was no way of knowing which village it hailed from, but there was always the chance that it had actually been made in Lasma’s village and that I had truly brought it back home. How wonderful to consider. This cloth from Nancy Barr in Alaska, obtained on e-Bay from someone who had inherited it from his parents and knew nothing about it, now back in Tano Batak. Back to the village; pulang kampung.
I watched Lasma’s reaction. Her mother and her aunt, her father and her younger siblings, as well as some men from the village who had come to their little café to drink a cup of coffee, looked on. What leapt out were the similarities and differences with the bulang they knew. While nobody makes the cloth anymore, Lasma’s mother and aunt used to weave it. There were no oohs and aahs of surprise; the patterning had remained remarkably constant. There was delight at the natural colour and the fineness of the yarn and the weaving. It was familiar to them.
|Lasma inspected the cloth minutely
Lasma shows Pung from the Bebali
Foundation and Jean Howe (to the
right, not in the picture) the bulang
from her tradition.
|Lasma learned about working with mangkudu dye when
she visited Threads of Life in Bali. The learning process
is long and dyeing with mangkudu also takes a great deal of time.
|I showed the textile to students in
Pematang Siantar. Wherever I went, I took
advantage of opportunities to show Batak people
this remarkable piece of their heritage.
When the trip was over, because of its fragility, I brought the bulang home with me again.
The bulang is here with me now again in The Netherlands, rolled and safe -- and still undeniably present. It has gone back to the villages for a short visit, but it is still like a scrolled message waiting to be interpreted. It is not mine. It goads me. It asks for revival.
My next step will be to contact the Batak weavers who attended our workshop and learned how to spin. Time to commission some handspun yarn, and I know someone who works with red mangkudu dye…
The future is still long. I hope that someday there will be a safe opportunity for this bulang to go back to the villages permanently.