Saturday, January 07, 2017

Culture not Business

Many people encourage me to build a Weaving Centre or a Weaving School in the Batak area, a place where I can share my knowledge and where weavers can learn to get ahead with their craft at the same time as they perpetuate their culture. Of course the idea appeals to me as I have reached the age when I want to "give back". Financial issues aside, the question is: how to go about it?

I am usually encouraged to take the 'rational' approach: clear goals, clear budget, clear plans, clear timeframe, the right people, a good location and begin! But I have a reluctance to be business-like in this way. The reason is the cultural goal of the Weaving Centre. My concern is that my initiative would then only last as long as I am there to determine and shape it, in short: employ weavers. I conceive of a different path. It will most certainly be slower -- but I hope it will be more long-lasting than the business that has to close down when the head drops dead.

The starting conundrum is how to build a cultural centre when I am not a true member of the culture and my position in the community may mean that people follow my wishes rather than expressing their own? To my mind a culture centre is about something that is located in the hearts and minds of the people, fully integrated, part of their daily lives, respected, loved, second nature. I want to facilitate something that they would want, whether I was there or not. I see my role as facilitating not leading. Keeping my ear to the ground and not dictating. Playing the devil's advocate not the employer. Holding hands.

Lasma and Ma Tika examine photographs of a variety of textiles of the
same design type. (Photo MJA Nashir)
Ma Tika in Lasma's village, for example, already weaves for a middleman to whom she sells her finished work. She has no idea how much the middleman gets for her textile from the consumer. She lives a hamster-in-a-wheel existence. Her delight in weaving is something she keeps to herself. She is self-taught. She explores the art privately. For the middleman she does what she is told. When I met her, I wanted to plug into her hidden, creative side. She had to learn to trust me and that didn't happen quickly or in a vacuum. She had to hear Lasma's explanations about my choices  and experience me firsthand. Initially she expected orders from me but I was interested in talking with her! I wanted to know her capacities and the things that thwart her greater success. She lives in a hard dog-eat-dog world and that is antithetical to the creative spirit. Slowly, gradually, I knew what I should do: she was excited by natural dyes and needed recipes. She was interested in higher quality textiles, but didn't know the technical adjustments that had to be made. I facilitated her obtaining the knowledge that she needed. We do not earn money from each other, but in the long run I hope that she will enjoy a more satisfying and lucrative relationship with her loom and that she will share her stores of knowledge with other young people.

 In the case of Lasma, my relationship with her involves high telephone and travel expenses. My strategy is the same. I listen to her stories. What is she trying to make? What are her stumbling blocks? How can I help: with my network? with materials? For me our relationship has taken unexpected turns as I have learned of her wishes. Now we have ended up purchasing land so that she can grow cotton and dyestuffs. We are planning to build a place where she can work more comfortably and efficiently. All of these decisions have taken years of trial and error, waiting for the urges to emerge and then listening carefully and "thinking with" to come up with the appropriate solution. I facilitate where I can; Lasma builds her own future. She learns to listen to her own intuition, express her own needs and execute the solutions. I am being a kind of "Mom". In the end it is spirit and drive that will carry the Simalungun Weaving Centre. It needs to be nurtured.

I could not have made a road guide in advance. Happening upon Lasma was a piece of luck; she is so bright and dedicated and with her heart in the right place. Another person would have entailed another approach. We inch along in what mas Nashir describes as "mengalir seperti air": flowing like water. My guide is the spirit of "Pulang Kampung": returning (any and everything) to the villages as needed. The villages in North Sumatra have been bled dry by generations of exploitation. They are like a desert longing for water, but a flood would be of no use. The bit of water that I try to sluice towards them is obtained with thoughtfulness and sometimes difficulty; it is precious and has to be utilized wisely and carefully, bit by bit, so that its benefits are maximized, making a little go the longest way. Strategies need to be carefully devised and revised.

When I am gone, Lasma will hopefully be left with a foundation from which she will be able to share with others. If she has been nurtured by generosity, she will be generous in turn. Things flourish through generosity.

I have no specific goals for the Simalungun Weaving Centre; I have a general goal. Above all, I want the Weaving Centre to be a place where young Batak weavers are free to 'grow their culture' and take it into the future. I want it to be a place where their creative spirit feels inspired and nurtured. They must do the hard work of integrating the past with the future and find the ways to make it work. As an outsider to their culture, that is not within my capacity. I must rely on them. 

My approach is not "rational". I will not earn money or "meet measurables within a certain timeframe", but that is not my goal. I want to make it a option for Batak women to grow their weaving culture. Their success will be my reward.

1 comment:

  1. All strength to those who come to the SWC to learn and develop their weaving skills. May they benefit and grow and also give back to the SWC which has supported them.