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. 

Monday, January 07, 2019

Endangered Textile Design: Will we make room for it to survive?



The more I learn about the position of weavers in Indonesia, the more I feel concern that they are no longer in a position to continue to grow their design traditions. I especially see the drastic effects of poverty. How can a weaver allow her imagination to take flight when she is worried about where school fees will come from, how she can pay for medicine for her sick husband and whether the weather will allow her to reap a sufficient harvest? Moreover, when she weaves, she cannot hope to earn nearly what she deserves for her time and effort. These days she must compete with mechanical looms that appropriate her heritage designs. To corner an external market, she is encouraged to work within an aesthetic genre that is not hers; her own cultural market is too poor to pay for her best work. When the fashion world appropriates her designs, she is often demoted to the role of underpaid labourer if she is involved in the process at all. She is definitely between several rocks and a hard place. This is especially painful when compounded with the awareness that these exquisite, rich Indonesian woven traditions are the result of the skill and creativity of generations upon generations of village weavers. Does this mean that these traditions are doomed to come to a halt forever? Surely computer generated 'indigenous' designs are not the answer! What about creating room for the weaver through respect, a living wage, market improvement, appropriate policy that protects her role as creator of her own heritage!

Dr. Geneviève Duggan (field area: Savu) and I decided that we wanted to call badly needed attention to these issues. Luckily we are able to do that within the context of ICAS, the International Convention of Asian Studies at Leiden in July 2019. We will be chairing a Roundtable devoted to the topic. This is the introduction that we wrote for our event.

How indigenous weavers create design in their communities has not been sufficiently studied. 
The topic has become urgent because indigenous weaving traditions are in sharp decline.  

The goal of the Roundtable on Endangered Textile Design is to explore the cultural nature of indigenous textile design creation. The topic has been selected on the understanding that the loss of indigenous design is not inevitable, but the result of identifiable social forces, hence the possibility of remedial strategies.

The Roundtable will also examine exogenous forces that have an impact on indigenous design production. Indigenous weavers currently suffer from a loss of social and economic room to continue to grow their design traditions. Enclosures, appropriations, and 'design assistance' from exogenous worlds need to be evaluated for their effect on weaver latitude. 

The Roundtable is set up to encourage discussion, generate feedback and elicit additional information. Will a consensus of concern emerge? Can a basis for policy recommendations be established?