Monday, April 25, 2016

Ompu Jonathan: Update

We left Ompu Jonathan, br. Sitanggang a couple of blogs ago on the top of Samosir Island where we had looked, unsuccessfully, for someone who could make the earthenware pots to hold our natural dyes (in the future).

In 2015 MJA Nashir and I had quickly organized a spinning workshopWe had learned that Ibu Tetti had planted cotton and that the fluffy bolls were available for use. We knew that there was a lone spinner close by and we decided to bring the cotton and the spinner together. But who would attend the workshop? To our surprise, Ibu Tetti knew two weavers from the top of Samosir Island who wanted to learn how to spin. Ompu Jonathan was one of them. 

I was curious. "Why do you want to learn how to spin?" I had asked her. Spinning cotton is not easy and eats up takes an enormous amount of time. "I want to be able to make a sibolang textile like my ancestors used to do," came Ompu Jonathan's response.

Her answer gave me pause. I read into it nostalgia for days gone by, a respect for the traditions of the past. I looked at this lithe, betel-chewing woman. What a goal to have! How unusual in this day when weaving is on the way out! I didn't quite know what to make of her dream. An unrealizable pipe dream? I didn't know whether to comfort or commend her.

The sibolang may well be
one of the oldest Batak textiles
Samosir Island was once renowned for its mystical impenetrability; according to myths, it was home to the first Batak. Here the weaving arts flourished, especially the great blue cloths that for centuries formed the woven core of ritual practice. They could very well be the oldest textiles in the Batak repertory. On Samosir Island, these textiles were woven with the greatest variety, size and quality of anywhere else -- not just for the Toba Batak who lived there, but also for the Simalungun Batak on the Northeast shore of the lake. They, too, used the great, wide, blue hipcloths, just slightly different in design from the Toba variants. Samosir weavers (or their agents) negotiated the trek downwards off the great height of the island to sell their finished wares through the markets located on the shores of the lake. When I visited the Island in 1986, I found a few weavers there who still dyed their yarn with indigo dye from plants that grew wild on the craggy, rocky surface land. When I visited in 2010, there was not a single weaver left. The elderly ones who had known how to weave had all hung up their looms -- or burned them assuming that nobody would ever again take up the art.. The devout, blue cloths no longer had much of a role to play in local rituals having been eclipsed by lightweight, colourful, fashionable things.  The blue tradition of Samosir may be declared dead.

Ompu Jonathan is a practiced weaver. She learned the art from her mother and she brought it to her husband's village when she married. There she is a solitary weaver. She used to make the sibolang and remembers its decline on the market and the rise of the sadum. She switched to making the red headcloth, sigaragara, for the Karo market, a cloth that, despite its colour, has many similarities with the sibolang. The Toba have also catered to the Karo market for centuries. In this way, she could still have an income. She also makes the Toba Batak surisuri textile if she receives an order. (Do any readers want to order this cloth from her? Let me know!)

I listened carefully to Ompu Jonathan
My path crossed Ompu Jonathan's again earlier this year when Lasma and I visited Ibu Tetti to discuss the possible futures for cotton on Samosir Island. Ompu Jonathan joined us as we teased the seeds out of the cotton bolls that ibu Tetti had spread before us. "How are your plans developing to revive the sibolang textile?" I asked her, half out of politeness, and half out of curiosity. Again Ompu Jonathan impressed me with her dedication to her quest. She still had not wavered from her course. "How long have you had this dream?' I asked. "About five years" she answered. (She is now 54 years old.) She had tried her hand at spinning and had been frustrated by the shortcomings of the spinning wheel that we had given to her.  She had done her best; she still wanted to be able to spin! It was clear that it was still worthwhile to assist her in achieving her dream.

I decided that Ompu Jonathan would be an asset that should be included in the Textile Revival Project with the Bank of Indonesia. This kind of spirit, this kind of dedication could only benefit the project! And she needed to be encouraged and rewarded!  If she had the tools, she certainly had the will!  What a shame if she were not able to succeed!

Ompu Jonathan is now looking for a person who can teach her how to make the ikat patterning in the sibolang textile. It used to be that every weaver of the sibolang made her own ikat. Where can she find an ikat maker now on Samosir Island? Like Ma Tika, she also joined us as we made our rounds from one weaving region to another during our last journey through Tano Batak. In Muara she returned from the market with a bundle of ikat patterned yarn, overjoyed that the maker had let her purchase it. She also made acquaintance with the natural dyer and learned the recipe for indigo dye. Like Ma Tika she broadened her network so that, as soon as she has found her ikat teacher, presumably she will have all the tools to be able to accomplish her goal.


This time we left Ompu Jonathan at Parapat where she was going to cross over to Samosir Island and look around on her own for an ikat maker. We had too little time left to be able to cross over with her and assist in the search. I wonder how she fared? As I write, curiosity is getting the better of me. I simply have to call…. 

… Alas, I have just learned through the telephone that Ompu Jonathan has not yet found her ikat guru. I have to get back there to help her as soon as I can.  That's two things on my list: her spinning wheel and her ikat guru. Oh yeah, and a souvenir from The Netherlands. I asked if helping her achieve her goal wasn't enough and she said, "No". There you have it!  Three things on my list.

1 comment:

  1. Another very inspiring weaver! May her search for an ikat guru be successful and her spinning wheel be suitably adapted. The sibolang is definitely a very special textile. It has a kind of 3-D quality to it due to the way it is warped as well as the ikat which means that there is a sense of almost looking through a veil - it is not solid and flat. I would be interested in commissioning a surisuri (I have a weakness for the blue textiles) if it can help support her along the way and would most definitely be interested in a sibolang if/when she is in a position to weave one. We must discuss when you have a moment. You know where my collection is destined for and I would love the British Museum to have textiles with this special provenance. Meanwhile 'all power to Ompu Jonathan's elbow', as they say, in reaching her goals!