Thursday, October 31, 2019

Finding (de)coloniality

We are in the midst of the countdown. 4 November will soon be upon us. Erica de Greef has arrived from South Africa and has hit the ground running: meeting people in preparation for the conversations on 4 November and already sharing her research and experiences with the other residents in the Van Eyck.

Yesterday in the Van Eyck restaurant, we had a kind of revolving-door set of serial meetings. Elisa van Joolen became one of our lunch companions and I was thankful because it will be my job to co-ordinate the conversation around her artwork and I wanted to talk with her about it. Her work, entitled 'Portal', was first made and displayed by State of Fashion in Arnhem's 'Searching for the New Luxury' exhibition two summers ago. It has lived on vigorously in various iterations since then, and we are delighted to be able to share it again at the Van Eyck where the artist is now in residence.

The work offers a window onto the complex relationships that people have with their own clothing. Elisa has been able to tailor the artwork to reflect the different kinds of people who participate to produce the work, whether children or senior citizens. Each participant removes a piece of clothing of their choice and draws its outline on a large piece of white paper-like material. He or she then responds to questions about the item, questions related to price, origins and personal affinity to the piece. Pieces with comparable themes are then connected by lines of a particular colour. The result is a colour-coded pictorial display of a group's relationships to their clothing.

Given the theme of 4 November, I wondered out loud whether this 'Portal' could display (de)coloniality? What it reveals specifically is how we, in the West, relate to clothing. Can it reveal how we don't relate to clothing? Can we see absences in this portal? Don't we just find precisely our own mentalities reflected back to us? One of the characteristics of both colonialism and capitalism is the convenient 'forgetting' of Other peoples: ones who are removed from their land by extraction activities; ones whose clothing traditions disappear because they cannot compete in the global economic climate; ones whose producers of exquisite indigenous pieces are deskilled by working stupid, repetitive jobs in factories.  In the words of G.T. Reyes, these people are made invisible. How could such a Portal bring out what is unknown and almost never thought about? Can it be made a theme of comparison and thus earn its own set of colourful connective lines? 

Femke de Vries, thoughtful designer and analyst of clothing and instructor at ArtEZ, was also present at our lunch table. "Decoloniality is also about self-awareness," she pointed out. "It is a process. It is about finding meaning. In this Portal has enormous impact. It encourages people to think about their relationship to clothing." 

I had to think of the evening before, when Erica de Greef presented unusual, artistic and highly fashion films from South Africa. Femke's insights on that occasion also gave pause. "When you sketch the context to these films, it allows me to see them in a new light, " she explained to Erica and the other viewers. "I don't know anything about this South African context. When you provide background explanations, I am thrown back on myself, and I perceive that I must unlearn my 'usual' responses and newly learn according to the new information. This is humbling and it makes me careful. It is another culture and deserves respect." 

I had been re-reading G.T. Reyes that morning, and what Femke de Vries said then also brought his words to mind:
"Coloniality does not only operate systemically; it also functions at the personal level. Engagement in praxis must then also be intimate and mindful, starting with the self. It questions the construction of one’ s entire being: Why am I how I am? Why do I think what I think? Why do I do what I do?
At minimum, such questioning is uncomfortable, but discomfort can be temporary. What is of
importance in this process of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is developing the
tools to be radically mindful in the moment of experiencing discomfort. Radical mindfulness
moves beyond traditional purposes of mindfulness that intend for individuals to become more aware of their inner experience and how they interact with the world around them. Radical
mindfulness particularly assists peoples impacted by coloniality to navigate the compounding and
cumulative ways that systems of oppression impact mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical
health. Actively working through discomfort in critical and humanizing ways opens up  transformative possibilities. Without doing so, people remain unaware or complicit in the colonial
project and therefore reproduce it. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable requires
visibilizing and critically examining of the underlying sociohistorical reasons that cause the discomfort in the first place."

I looked at Femke and thanked her. "What you have just experienced this evening, while watching Erica de Greef's films, and what you have expressed, is precisely what we hope to achieve on 4 November. This must be one of the most fundamental goals of our event; it has the power to be transformative into the future." 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Lists of Resources for Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster

On November 4, in Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, we explore the important juncture of fashion, climate urgency and decoloniality. Many participants on 4 November have asked for references to help them prepare for the day. Below you will find a few resources available on line for ease of access. This list is by neither definitive nor complete. Striking is that there appear to be no resources (as yet) specifically addressing the juncture that we will be addressing on the 4th. 

Please suggest useful resources and I will add them to the list.

On Decoloniality
Wikipedia provides useful background resources. Use the search terms: 
·       'Decoloniality',  'Decoloniality of power', 'Indigenous decolonization'

The theme of decoloniality comes up increasingly frequently in educational resources:

Reyes, G.T.  2019. 'Pedagogy of and Towards Decoloniality'. In Encyclopedia of Teacher Education.
https://www.academia.edu/39769603/A_Pedagogy_of_and_Towards_Decoloniality

Weems, Lisa.  2016. Decolonial Education at Its Intersections. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Singapore.
https://www.academia.edu/32129406/Decolonial_Education_at_Its_Intersections?email_work_card=title

Works by Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo may be considered core readings. Both are prolific and seminal writers:

Quijano, Anibal. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.
https://www.ecosia.org/search/?q=quijano-coloniality-of-power.pdf&addon=safari&addonversion=4.1.0.28

Pheng Cheah. 2006. The Limits of Thinking in Decolonial Strategies.
https://www.ecosia.org/search/?q=The+Limits+of+Thinking+in+Decolonial+Strategies+Pheng+Cheah&addon=safari&addonversion=4.1.0.28

Mignolo, W. D., & Walsh, C. E. 2018. On decoloniality: Concept, Analytics, Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press. Duke University Press allows readers to download the introductory segments of the book:
https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-0-8223-7109-0_601.pdf

Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez (2013), ‘Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings,’ Social Text Online, retrieved on 21-11-2018 from https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-aesthesis-colonial-woundsdecolonial-healings/ 

Some brief additional references related to system change:

Climate Change or System Change
https://www.localfutures.org/wp-content/uploads/Climate-Change-or-System-Change-1.pdf?link_id=5&can_id=69e802ecbe480358a25ce097c3660a5e&source=email-to-fight-climate-change-we-need-system-change&email_referrer=email_623591&email_subject=to-fight-climate-change-we-need-system-change

Carrasco-Miro, Gisela. 2017. EcoSlmies of care: a proposal for decolonizing 'sustainable development'. From the European South 2: 89-108.
https://www.ris.uu.nl/ws/files/38189703/EcoSImies_of_care_a_proposal_for_decolon_Gisela_Carrasco_Miro.pdf

Fletcher, Kate and Tham, Matilda. 2019. Earth Logic: Fashion Action Research Plan


Fashioning Fashion

The RCDF programme on 4 November at the Van Eyck in Maastricht will include, among a variety of other things, the continuous showing of a series of short films. We are not aware of any films that specifically link all three of fashion, coloniality and climate change, only combinations of two. (If any readers have suggestions of films that shed light on the entire triad, we would be very happy to receive them!) The films will hence be something to watch critically and with which to dialogue.

I was inspired to include a short film about indigenous fashion in Bolivia in the RCDF film line-up ("Fashioning respect for Bolivia's indigenous with traditional clothing" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRi6VInW-Zw).  It documents an interesting fashion phenomenon. We all know fashion's predilection to appropriate design ideas from any and every ethnic source while at the same time denying that ethnic dress systems could possibly be considered fashion. This film about indigenous Aymara fashion draws attention to that paradox. It is a film that combines two of our themes: fashion and coloniality. Nevertheless the climate change theme is lurking just below the surface.

After the indigenous Evo Morales became the President of Bolivia, new social and political latitudes were experienced by the indigenous populations.  Tired of being relegated to the position of the Other Without Fashion, indigenous designer Glenda Yanez, made the decision to present the indigenous clothing of the Aymara people as high fashion, displaying it on the catwalk and marketing it as a fashionable 'look'.

This is an interesting experiment with the fashion category and highly ambiguous. It reveals a desire of the indigenous people to stand up and have their own look be recognized. The dress system is something that otherwise would not be found on the catwalk as it is considered 'outside' fashion. Putting it on the catwalk posits the claim that an indigenous clothing fashion can be considered fashion. It refuses to be left out.

Nevertheless, there is an irony here that is endemic to the fashion complex. While the fashionalizing of Aymara clothing is painted as positive by the film's narrator (turning the dress of "second-class citizens" into "high fashion") it could also be argued that the consequences may not be all positive. Even though the clothing design is indigenous, 'standing up and being counted' is framed in the Western fashion idiom and performed according to rules exogenous to the Bolivian indigenous people. Fashionalizing indigenous dress does not just demand recognition for the indigenous clothing, but simultaneously transforms it. 'Fashion' carries complex baggage of hierarchical relations: gendered, generational, racial, labour-related and financial. How has this Bolivian experiment played out? What has been its effect on the people? What are the relations between the designer, Glenda Yanez, the models, and the indigenous people whose clothing was fashionalized? How has the attendant income been distributed? How broadly accepted was the designer's decision to put the clothing on the catwalk? How did the fashion decision influence pride, production, contexts of wearing and sales? "With their new-found spending power, the Cholitas are now importing tailor-made textiles from China," says the narrator of the film as though this was part of the rosy picture. From the looks of it, those textiles appear to be synthetic; they are shipped halfway around the world; and Chinese labour appears to have taken on the work of Aymara women. Lurking links with climate change?

I would like to see a follow-up film, exploring the effects of this experiment in greater depth. In addition to changes in social and individual relations propelled by the fashionalization of the clothing, how do the various partners in this new trend measure success? Is that measure commonly held? 

The decision taken in Bolivia is not historically unique. Indeed, fashion is a strategy that has been chosen over and over and over again to achieve recognition. Usually this involves an adoption of Western clothing styles. Think of Mahatma Gandhi in his early years, wearing British clothes. Colonial powers everywhere altered indigenous clothing to bring colonized people more closely to the fold of 'civilized' (without ever truly admitting them). King Chulalongkorn of Siam chose to 'modernize' his country to escape the fate of being colonized by an external power and, like Gandhi, he was brilliant at adapting his dress on occasions when he needed to present himself as modern (to the Western eye) and sophisticated. There are enough examples of indigenous clothing styles in Africa and Asia being fashionalized for status. Everywhere in the world Those Without Fashion have navigated the definitions and biases of fashion to be recognized as being modern and admirable. This is how the fashion system has 'globalized'.

Given the drastic effect that the Western fashion system has had, and continues to have, on the physical environment, the colonial desire to be acknowledged as fashionable is a contestable good. The West is currently struggling to reduce waste, slow down production and find meaning in clothes, to get out of the fashion rat-race. Should we call it de-fashionalizing? Do we in the West need to take our lessons from the Bolivian dress system -- before it was fashionalized? Has the trend to fashionalization made indigenous Bolivian dress a scarcer and more precious good? Even this picture is complicated by the centuries of change in Aymara clothing as a result of colonial conquest.

The World Needs Thoughtful Critical Voices


It has been a steep learning curve of a new type here at the Jan van Eyck. Coming from an academic background where peer judgement and control are the expected norm, structures are defined, the rules of the game have been deeply inculcated and the logic is linear, the Jan van Eyck enables a novel kind of freedom. You feel it the minute you walk through the door.

It is an institution that facilitates the creative works of artists. Here learning is experimental and experiential; peer contact is about manifold sharing, processes of learning are diverse, thinking is strikingly associative. Judgement, control and linearity are unexciting. Sleeves are rolled up; it is not about 'knowledge creation' per se, but knowledge digestion, self and social discovery in light of

The world needs thoughtful, critical voices and facilitating them is the obligation of civilization .... and the RCDF! That is our challenge as we seek to deliver our programme to reveal the link between fashion, climate and coloniality here at the Jan van Eyck. We are academics and a large portion of our audience is of the creative ilk.  Our programme needs to speak to all.

Unsuspecting at the outset, we have dived in at the deep end and art students have been our guides. We are endlessly grateful to them for introducing us to a different thought world and thereby helping us prepare for 4 November. Our plan was to involve fashion students in the programme. To foster their involvement, Angela Jansen and I were to visit their classes to share some of our learning about fashion and decoloniality (read: top-down, lecture-style). However, we found ourselves in what amounted, for us, to an environment in which we had to learn to facilitate different kinds of learning and processes. Hands-off, not programmatic or formulaic, creating room for 'it' to happen and then standing back, accepting and celebrating 'it' with all of the unexpected, and the differences and the flow -- a far cry from the structures in the classroom with which we were familiar.


Yesterday, Wednesday evening, the Van Eyck had its traditional weekly gathering to listen to an artist in the residence and then sit down to a communal meal made by the residents. By chance, the man who took the empty chair next to me at the long table was the President of the Board of the Jan van Eyck and former President of Maastricht University. A kind and accessible man, we enthusiastically shared our thoughts about the wondrous creation called the Van Eyck Academy. We had obtained our PhDs from the same faculty in Leiden and we shared an outsider's 'academic view'. We both had a kind of awe for the different way of thinking/being/acting that prevails here. His pride in the Academy was almost palpable. In my turn, I felt proud of him for standing up to be a passionate ambassador/protector of the Academy. He was delighted that fashion as an experimental, critical and thoughtful art, has been welcomed into the fold of the Van Eyck. 

The RCDF challenges itself to put on a programme on 4 November that will be meaningful to its communities, that offers space for experiential learning and reflection, for moving ahead to deal with the climate crisis in our respective ways. For the past half century, and due to a certain coloniality of thought built into the capitalist system, arts and social programs have been 'dispensable' during every economic crisis in the Western world. Our current deep, existential crisis requires systemic change and all hands on deck. There is an important role for the Van Eyck Academy. And the RCDF is excited to be part of that exploration.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

What about the People (and their clothing systems)?

Here at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht (The Netherlands) all roads are pointing to 4 November when our Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion will host its day-long event,  Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster.

My first task, as a resident of the Academy, is to situate the ideas of the RCDF in the discourse on fashion and sustainability. We need to be clear about the link between decolonization, fashion and climate change. Within the present, dominant discourse, this link is not obvious.  

I looked up frameworks constructed by some prominent organizations to ameliorate fashion problems.  One was provided by the 'Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action' a UN initiative to facilitate the fashion industry meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. Not surprisingly the emphasis is placed on: 
·      low-carbon solutions and eliminating coal, 
·      reducing climate emissions from operations 
·      more efficient resource use  

Another framework was constructed by Fashion for Good. This initiative was co-founded by William McDonough, famous for having conceived (together with Michael Braungart) the notion of 'cradle-to-cradle', the core concept of the circular economy. He advocates "... an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not simply take, make, waste, but rather take, make, renew, restore." This framework involves five 'goods':
·      Good Materials - safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling
·      Good Economy - growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
·      Good Energy - renewable and clean
·      Good Water - clean and available to all
·      Good Lives - living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified

From these and other action plans, the familiar image of centre and periphery emerges. The centre is 'the fashion industry'; the periphery feeds it by supplying the raw materials and labour during production operations. The goal appears to be business as usual, radical only in encouraging more skilful treatment of material and ethical treatment of labour.

Other activist fashion groups echo the two examples that I have presented here; the discourse appears to have gelled around a focus on materials and energy use and labour ethics. 

Once again, the people and their culture are left out. I was relieved to hear Naomi Klein, in a recent talk about climate, disparaging goals and strategies that were to enable "change without having to change at all", "looking for a fix that is going to leave the status quo pretty much unchanged". 
"Now, as these so-called solutions are advanced .... the people ... seem to disappear .... This chronic forgetfulness about 'inconvenient other people' is the thread that unites so many fateful climate policies of recent years." (12.54) 

Her talk was about climate mitigation technologies but her insight applies to fashion. In the entire history of fashion studies, fashion theorists have rigorously and consistently denied that 'other' people have their own fashion systems. It is logical and consistent, therefore, that in this time of deep crisis, the clothing systems of the labourers producing the Western fashions continue to be denied or forgotten.  Similarly the clothing systems of indigenous peoples whose lands, forests and cultural systems are being destroyed are never mentioned. Why would there be attention, in a time of crisis, for something the existence of which has never been acknowledged by the industry? With sales estimated at $1.34 trillion in 2018, it would not in their bullying, maximizing interest.

Some organizations set up to ameliorate the 'fashion problem' have gone a little further in their focus. Fashion Revolution, for example, acknowledges culture in point 4 of its Manifesto.  
"Fashion respects culture and heritage. It fosters, celebrates and rewards skills and craftsmanship. It recognises creativity as its strongest asset. Fashion never appropriates without giving due credit or steals without permission. Fashion honours the artisan."
While there is mention of culture, heritage and appropriation, the focus is nevertheless still the needs of the Western fashion system. Point 4 fails to go so far as to consider the existence of, let alone support for, alternative clothing/fashion systems.

This is the narcissistic focus that the RCDF is trying to disrupt by shifting the floodlight to the periphery. This morning, I was inspired to write a list of Do's and Don'ts to bring attention to the cracks in the framework of even the most sincere attempts to redress the deleterious effects of 'the fashion system' on the environment.


Do's and Don'ts for 
Greenwashing your Clothing Purchases


Do buy clothing that is made responsibly by workers who receive a fair wage, work no more than 48 hours a week, are not children, have negotiating rights, and are allowed to form a union. 
            Don't enquire further about what has compelled them to take up a factory job -- whether they are migrants, widows, or forced off their land, whether they have small children at home, or are forced to bring them to the factory. Don't even think that they may be, or once were, designers in their own right and have their own clothing system that they would rather be attending to if market forces were less oriented to the centre. Do tow the line and convince yourself that a job in 'the' fashion industry is a boon because 'at least they have an income'. 


Do buy clothing that involves low transportation costs because emissions from transportation, both by sea and air, are contributing alarmingly and increasingly to global warming.
            Don't even think about buying local. The price will be too high. Don't think about local craft systems that are unsupported and disappearing because labour 'is so much cheaper' off-shore.     Don't think about alternative clothing systems that may be disappearing on this planet so that production for 'the Western fashion system' may thrive. 


Do try to purchase clothing with pure and natural fibres as this will reduce the use of fibres made from hydrocarbons and facilitate recycling.
            Don't ask yourself who is growing the cotton/linen/hemp/silk/wool, where it is coming from and how its production fits into and influences their lives. Does it enhance or is it deleterious? In the first place you will have a hard time finding the answers; in the second place, it may take your focus away from "the look" and your humanity might mean that you reject a beautiful item of clothing just because you care about the well-being of other people.
            Don't bother your head about ecosystems that might have been transformed or destroyed to fit into the 'supply chain' of Western fashion.


Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster RCDF at the Jan van Eyck Academy

For one week, starting 3 November, the Dutch 'Jan van Eyck Academy' in Maastricht (janvaneyck.nl), will devote time and attention to the most pressing problem of our age: climate change. 

The Van Eyck Academy is a well-reputed multiform institute whose facilities for fine art, design and reflection are the envy of every artist and it opens its doors as widely as possible to engage participants in its stimulating programmes. During the week long Climate Urgency Marathon in November, artists will examine their roles and responsibilities. The Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion has agreed to curate the Monday, 4 November programme on fashion and climate. We have been given a 3-month residency, with access to all the facilities of the Academy, to facilitate preparation of the event.  
It is a challenging and exciting assignment. Certainly sustainability, including climate change, weighs heavily on the mind of everybody associated with the fashion industry (see  the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Industry%20Charter%20%20Fashion%20and%20Climate%20Action%20-%2022102018.pdf)
Coloniality, on the other hand, is an all but forgotten ingredient in the mix. The task of the RCDF is to bring this crucial issue to the fore. We are in a whirlwind of meetings with students, discussions with experts and serious research in libraries.

I will be filling one month of the residency and my term has just begun. During the course of the next weeks, I will be writing blogs to share with you how we are giving shape to our programme. 
The first next step will be to construct the November 4 agenda with the other RCDF members involved in the Van Eyck programme (Angela Jansen, Toby Slade, Erica de Greef). Stay tuned.

In the meantime, don't forget to put 4 November on your agenda. Come to the Van Eyck in Maastricht and take part in Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster  (https://janvaneyck.nl/nieuws/research-collective-for-decolonizing-fashion/). It is open to the public and will be conducted in English.

To whet your appetite for more, chew first on this useful reference on decoloniality: 
G.T. Reyes, 'A Pedagogy of and Towards Decoloniality'. https://www.academia.edu/39769603/A_Pedagogy_of_and_Towards_Decoloniality

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Giving a Damn and Hyperopia: Decolonizing for Sustainability


The more effectively a clothing company functions the more destructive it is (to the world). That is the nature of the beast. (Kate Fletcher)

On the 5th of June, 2019, I attended a community event at ArtEZ (a tertiary art and design education institution in Arnhem, The Netherlands). The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion was the first item on the agenda. Kate Fletcher, Research Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London and one of the original founders of the Union, was there to explain the Union. She elicited interests and concerns specific to Arnhem/The Netherlands. Laudably, the Union organizes such assemblies to keep in close touch with its members. 

[I encourage readers to look up the union website: concernedresearchers.orgArtEZ stands firmly behind this initiative just as I do. It has the potential, as a global movement, to be a game changer that we so desperately need. Print out the Manifesto and hang it on walls and doors!] 

Kate Fletcher said something during her introduction that remained on my mind throughout the afternoon: "It turns out that it is easier to conceptualize the end of the world (as we know it) than a world that is not driven by capitalism." Think about that! Scary! --  given that it behooves us to think of, and live, alternatives to capitalism if we would like to postpone the end of the world. 

The group split up into smaller discussion units to hash out a variety of fashion sustainability concerns and then reported back. We did not discuss that scary paradox but the entire session was devoted to fashion re-visioning. Kate Fletcher's words were always in the back of my mind.

By the end of the day, some wind had returned to my sails. A collective framework had emerged. We all talked about the same things: making fashion more fair; making fashion better meet our needs by bringing it closer to home; making fashion more precious so that we stop throwing it away so wantonly; recognizing the physical world in our clothes. Two red threads that ran through it all included: 'caring' and 'togetherness', two of the words that Kate would bring back to share with the Union. 

I brought them home with me, too. The power of caring and doing it collectively! Eureka! The wrench in the capitalist wheel! Collective caring demolishes the primary credo of maximizing wealth at all cost. It would change everything. Nature would not be raped and pillaged to satisfy vanity; labours of love would prevail above worker exploitation; our clothing would not be made of oil and would biodegrade; and I daresay all wearers of such clothing would be happier. But how to achieve this utopian world, so exciting to consider? 

Aye, there's the rub!

We need examples. As I cogitate on Professor Fletcher's visit, I am struck by how profoundly we need anthropological knowledge, awareness of how other societies have organized their apparel, the awareness of alternatives. How limited we are if we can't think of a single one!

The word 'fashion' is no doubt part of our problem. The literature references the 'fashion system' as though it were singular -- while in fact it has morphed endlessly since fashion began (whether that beginning is assigned to the 17th 18th or 19th century). It has trickled up and trickled down and spread sideways, imposed itself and appropriated. As economics made visible, fashion's talent is to adapt endlessly to change. To position Western fashion as a monumental entity relative to non-fashion is to promulgate two pieces of fake news at once. Western fashion is, in fact, varied and not monumentally singular. And because fashion is ubiquitous, non-fashion doesn't exist. Everywhere there is and always has been fashion, in every society and in every time period. The examples out there are endless. The notion of fashion has shortened our vision.

Decolonizing fashion is of critical importance in this time of environmental crisis. It makes it possible to see different fashion systems; acknowledge and respect them; give them room to survive; learn from them: care about them collectively. That would be a fashion revolution. 



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Ailsa's Magic

My friend Ailsa Kay is at the Weaving Centre now. She is generating hope and happiness!

The day after she arrived, the women in Lasma's family all gathered to help her learn to weave. They posted pictures on Facebook, a sign of their intense excitement: they wanted to tell the world! For the occasion they all donned the  'bulang' headcloth, something that they have only ever done once before (when tourists visited). They clustered around Ailsa solicitously showing her how to stiffen the warp yarns with starch in preparation for weaving and they let her do it. Because they don't share a common language, the Simalungun girls are thrilled to be practising their English (with the help of Google) and Ailsa is no doubt learning a few words of Simalungun and Indonesian.


On the face of things, it may seem a simple matter to receive a visitor. For us at the Weaving Centre it is a Very Big Deal. For years, now, we have been working on our building, and specifically the Guest Room, to bring it up to the minimum standard that a Western visitor can expect. Our challenges have been significant, most of which fit under the heading 'Poverty'. Povery influences hope, will, knowledge, aspirations and belief in the future.  'Why would anybody visit the village?' the locals ask. It is ugly, and slummy, strewn with plastic garbage. So why would they devote time and money to a pipe dream of having visitors come? The charm the village once had was lost when people migrated from the ancient location beside the stream with the traditional architecture and built shacks along the road where they had better access to electricity and transportation. The village has lost its soul and is in disarray. The inhabitants are in basic survival mode. Bare, minimal survival occupies all of their time and thoughts. In some sections, clusters of families share a single toilet. Running water in a kitchen is a luxury dream. Hygienic standards cannot be upheld. The number of suicides is high though I don't know the rates. All of the farmers struggle against a system that benefits the middleman and the market but not them. How can they possibly believe that their weaving arts are of any importance or that visitors would want to visit their village to learn about those arts?  They themselves have learned from bitter experience that the market won't support their work. Besides, how could they possibly accommodate such a visitor? For them it is all a very far-from-their-bed scenario.

That is where my role comes in. I encourage, facilitate, discuss visions, allow myself to be laughed at and sometimes scorned; my motives invite incredulousness and inspire distrust -- and I plug on, trying to to keep their weaving arts front and centre in my thoughts, and hold onto the conviction that one day...one day.... the skills in the village will be universally treasured. If only we can keep those skills alive in the meantime!

Enter Ailsa! Is she the first Western, white woman to ever sit down and learn to weave in Simalungun? I have never heard of another doing that. I think that she is making history! She is generating pride, hope and new visions of the future in the weaving family. They have allowed me to persuade and lead them all this way in preparation for her visit, on condition that I bear all the risks. Will Ailsa's visit re-kindle belief in their beautiful weaving tradition? Will they take on the dream/goal of having it survive? Will they assume some initiative and dedicate themselves to that dream? To what extent can and will that dream support them? The future is filled with so many unknowns...will global warming smash all of our dreams? ... I have no recourse but to struggle on, undaunted, with hope, no recourse but to believe in a supportive future. Otherwise I would give up.






Guru Op Elza oversees
Ailsa is my dear friend, my guest, and dare I say it? a little bit of a guinea pig as well. She has listened to my stories about the Weaving Centre for years. She is well-travelled, balanced, and an anthropologist. She was ready for the adventure. Our fingers were crossed.

In preparation for her (and those following her!?) Lasma's husband, Pak Sandi, (at my behest and cost, of course)  installed running water in the kitchen, built a strong bed frame for the mattress, had the bathroom tiled, and has begun to grow organic vegetables on our grounds. We have a loom for guests, and sufficient yarn, and now that the gardening season is tapering off, Ompu Elza is willing to put on her other hat of 'weaving guru'. 

Lasma is playing House Mother, Agustina is interpreter, story-teller and warm companion; all are helping out in their own way. (The two sisters shot the video accompanying this blog.) My friend, Ailsa, is playing along in a warm and communicative way, suggesting strategies to make the guest room more homey and conveying what her 'fresh eyes' see in what we have done and its potential.  She is happy to contribute in her way to making the weaving centre into a 'real' craft Homestay. Already they adore her and she is being taken up in the RBTS family. 
Lasma stocked up for Ailsa's visit 
It is working like magic. This evening Lasma called me and showed me the fire they had built to roast the organic corn just plucked from our land. They were enjoying the warmth of the flames, laughing and singing. The scene touched me. It was nurturing -- and I hope sustaining for all of them. They are all searching for their direction in life.  Sitting around the fire they were sharing and finding comfort and insights by being together. Differences of language were being bridged and the interference of outmoded concepts that have broken up the common humanity of North and South were rendered irrelevant and absurd. It crossed my mind that perhaps precisely this is what the Weaving Centre may  really be about: bonding, mutual understanding, linking North and South, making the unlikely possible, finding a shared direction. The envisioned future may never come, but we have had this moment, precipitated by the precious weaving tradition of Nagori Tongah. It will last forever. It makes me feel richly satisfied and filled with joy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Birthday Bulang for Mom

On Valentine's Day, February 14, my Mom turns 90. This is very special for the entire family. For her birthday, I have given my Mom a bulang textile. 

This is not the way a bulang would be given in the Simalungun culture where the cloth originates. If we were Simalungun, my Mom would have given me a bulang when I married, and the cloth would have symbolized her relationship to me (ergo the relationship between my lineage of birth and the lineage into which I marry), and also my identity as a married woman. I would have acquired, by marrying, the 'right' to wear it. The bulang from her would be the very special, inalienable one that I would keep carefully and honour forever. Eventually my descendants would also keep it, in memory of me and the indestructible tie that my marriage created between two lineages. When I give my Mom a bulang at age 90, on the face of things it has nothing to do with the original meaning of the cloth as an object of cultural exchange. But there is another way of looking at it.

I still only have one weaver in the former 'weaving village' in Simalungun where I work, but that 'accomplishment', if I may call it that, has been the result of a huge investment in time, energy and resources, especially given that we also work with naturally dyed cotton and try to reconstruct bulang versions to which Dutch museums have provided access. I cannot claim to have 'revived the bulang' but I can say that through my efforts (and of course those of many collaborators) some 'revivals' have been woven that have quite a lovely quality.

Op. Elza resumes weaving her bulang
Until now, I have not sold any of the weavings. In the first place, given the investment, any price that these textiles could fetch would be too low.

But there is more to it. The bulang has given me pause to consider its meaning and social role. Batak textiles used to be sacred objects. The ones currently woven are commodities, mere shadows of what they once were. Even used in ritual ceremonies, they are still only tokens of what they once were. The process of 'reconstructing' an old bulang inspires reflection on its purpose in this world. Is the modern version to be just for collectors and aesthetes with well-lined pockets? 

But to put the revived bulang back on the local market is to invite history to repeat itself. Even if it were to command a very high price, as a commodity the cloth would eventually be bargained down, the weaver would end up being exploited, and the middleman (right now that would be myself) would earn any profits to be gained. Fluctuations in currency and local and global markets are inevitable and eventually the weaver would again be squeezed out and have to retire her loom. That has already happened once in my weaving village, the end of a very long historical trajectory in which weavers were increasingly devalued and the quality of the cloth went into drastic decline. I know how the weavers have suffered and how the textiles have become cheap ersatz versions of what they once were. I don't want that to happen again and, after all of my efforts, I can't countenance myself as the author of such a repeat trajectory or the middleman. At the very least, that would create a different -- and undesired -- relationship between the weaver and myself. We are still working on the definition of 'revival' in a world that likes fast and simple commodities, a 'material world' that knows very little anymore about truly valuing objects. Putting the reconstructed cloth back on the market is to doom it and therefore also my purest ambitions.

On the other hand, friends tell me that by not putting it on the market, it is also doomed. Weavers need income. My own resources are also depleted and anything but infinite. I cannot continue to carry the project in this way forever.

Where lies the answer? I am still working on that.

The theme of continuity in the bulang is very important in the way the cloth is
constructed. Here the white warp has been 'sown' into the red warp in such a
way that both are continuous and uncut, symbolizing unbroken ties and time.
In the process, the bulang has given me many new insights. Traditional Batak gift giving, in which textiles figured central, was very little about material exchange and much more about symbolism, spirituality and the construction of identity and inalienable social ties. A bulang was transferred to bridge a social gap. It could do so because it was infused with spiritual content. It always moved between lineages where there was an affinal tie, that is, a political alliance forged by the union of a man and woman. If it was 'given', the giver acknowledged the social gap that required a bridge. The act of 'giving' was not solely one of handing over ownership but one of forging a tie. The bulang would unite the two kinship units forever. The act of giving acknowledged and defined the boundaries of social units at the same time as it bound them together. This is pretty different from a sale, in which the transfer of ownership is central and any social ramifications are arbitrary and random. In the giving of the bulang, the forging of an inalienable tie is central. The indigenous Simalungun economy ran on constructing and nurturing social ties, the ritual exchange of goods served that goal. That was the best insurance policy possible. Maximization was expressed in terms of healthy social bonds. Exploitation was neither a desired nor inadvertent end. Health, well being, and a long life with many progeny were the goals of life; amassing wealth made little sense except insofar as it could nurture social alliances.

I have enjoyed learning this. I realize now that an 'alternative economy' must operate on a truly different plane. The 'maximization of wealth' that dominates thinking in the current global context is a concept that interrupts the understanding of the bulang in its original habitat. My challenge now is how to construct a habitat that will allow the bulang to regenerate its original economy and offer the weaver, her family and village well being.

Mom and me
My Mom's 90th birthday gift is a step in that direction. My Mom has encouraged every inch of my progress in the revival of the bulang.  Her faith in my project has never wavered; she has supported it in every way she can. We already have an unbreakable tie, but I would like to express it by giving her a bulang. This gift will not unite social units the way a Batak textile is slated to do, but it will celebrate our tie and acknowledge her role in my life's work.  It will also link her forever to the weaver, Ompu Elza, Lasma's mother. The textile is too valuable to sell. The bulang that I gave to my mother is, for me, a multi-dimensional sacred object, and its value can never decline. It represents the special bond that we have, that can never be bought or sold, and will prevail forever. 

Thus the bulang is perhaps already regenerating its original economy.... Ironically, given that it is a piece of material culture, it has taught me how to acknowledge non-material dimensions of life and given me a means to truly honour the bond I have with my Mom.

Happy Birthday, Mom. You are mine forever, Valentine.