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. 

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?