Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Dutch in San Francisco

That the nameboard on my booth at the fairs announced my residence in Oosterbeek, The Netherlands, turned out to be a great boon. Many Californians of Dutch heritage made a beeline over to me to practise their Dutch and to reminisce about their Dutch past in comparison with their California present. Having, myself, a Dutch father who emigrated to Canada, we found that we had much in common.

One highlight of such meetings was the visit from Jaap and Petra Veerman. Jaap Veerman had recently been installed as the Deputy Consul of the Netherlands in San Francisco. His and Petra’s enthousiasm as collectors of Asian art was second only to their enthousiasm for promoting Holland in the world. Inevitably the conversation led to the potential role that the Dutch consulate could play to involve foreign Dutch nationals, and especially local Indonesian Dutch, in the fairs. The conversation evolved as we went to speak with Louis Rierijnck, another Dutch booth-holder at the fair and then further again in the Veerman home two days later where we enjoyed a warm welcome and a delicious meal. Their enthousiasm for Dutch Design and the accomplishments of the local Dutch in the San Francisco area was so infectious that I found myself wishing that I had also made foreign affairs my career...

One of the most noticeable Dutch contributions to American society is the cafĂ© chain called “Peet’s” that began in Berkeley. To my delight, they had a special on of Batak Blue coffee while I was there, and the walls of their coffee parlours were decorated with high-quality indigenous textiles.

....I wonder if they would be interested in blue Batak textiles....


Another serendipitous meeting at my booth was with Marijke van Doorn who invited me to her Berkeley home for tea. There I also met Riet, a Dutch professor at UC Berkeley and Mariet Braakman, artist. Their warmth and enthousiasm for Asian art and for my book added a special glow to my experience of the fairs.

My thanks to Michael Craycraft, Galerie Arabesque, for use of his photo of my stand at the fairs!

Presenting 'Legacy' to Consul General Sinambela of Indonesia

On the last day of the Tribal and Textile Arts Fair, a black official-looking limousine with diplomatic plates pulled up to deposit the Consul General of Indonesia and his wife at the door of the Festival Pavilion. I knew nothing of this until my colleague booth-holder, Noeleke Glenn Klavert of IndoArts, Inc., came by to introduce this very special guest to me and my book.

To my great surprise and pleasure, the Consul General was a Batak. Mr. Asianto Sinambela – you can tell by his name –   is a member of the same marga or lineage as the great Singamangaraja. The twelfth in line of the priestly king dynasty within the Sinambela lineage had led a rebellion against the Dutch colonialists at the turn of the twentieth century and paid for it with his life. I have been to the beautiful bay and Valley of Bakkara (southwest corner of Lake Toba, North Sumatra) where the Sinambela marga originates and have visited the monument that was erected there to him. I would have liked, more than anything else in the world at that moment, to sit down with him and chat about his lineage and his ancestral home on the bay. Time and circumstances did not grant me this pleasure, however. Perhaps sometime in the future?

But I did grab my chance to present Consul General Sinambela with a copy of my book. It was such a great pleasure to do so. I told him about my wish to bring copies of it to the weavers in North Sumatra and he pledged his support for this next endeavour. Immediately he was off to visit the next booth....

Sandra Niessen presenting Legacy in cloth to Consul General Sinambela of Indonesia on his visit, with his wife, to the San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts show. Thanks to Riena Sarojo, Secretary to the Consul General, who took this very nice photo!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Arts of Pacific Asia Fair 2010 is over...

The Arts of Pacific Asia Fair 2010 is over. It began with a gala last Thursday evening that was a joy to behold. The hordes descended upon us booth-holders interestingly, charmingly, curiously, outrageously and elegantly attired in Asian scarves, silks, robes, headdresses, shawls and gowns, as colourful a scene as could possibly be and apparently very San Francisco. There was music and dance, children on stilts and beauty queens. I took several pictures which I hope to post when I get back to The Netherlands.

We booth-holders were all keyed-up in anticipation. The vetting of the objects (to ensure their authenticity and appropriateness for the show) had taken place and all preparations were complete. The pavilion was utterly transformed by the beautifully arrayed Asian treasures.

My own stall was, in fact, a large exhibition space adorned with more than 20 of Thomas Murray's best 19th century textiles (not for sale) and fine Batak wood-carvings. The exhibit was so stunning against the soft grey walls that many people gushed with spontaneous compliments. Many were inspired to enquire about the objects. Where were these textiles from? Why hadn't they ever seen them before? How lovely and unique they were! I perceived that the exhibit represented a kind of introduction of the Batak to a public that was more used to jade, kimonos and lacquer ware. This was exactly what Thomas Murray and I had hoped for.

 Exhibit of Batak textiles and carvings from the collection of Thomas Murray.  Photo Sandra Niessen

The next day, I re-arranged the stall a little. The exhibit was working just a little too well and was drawing attention away from Legacy in cloth  rather than TO the book. I placed the book in more prominence and made signs to inform the visitors that this was a book launch rather than a " regular" stall with artifacts for sale. That seemed to do the trick.

"Dr. Sandra Niessen of Oosterbeek, Niederlands. Sandra Niessen is an anthropologist with a new, important book on Indonesian textiles." Photo by Michael Craycraft, Galerie Arabesque, for Jozan Magazine - see review.
All who saw my book expressed appreciation for the design of the cover, the quality of the photographs, the layout and, of course, the weight of the tome! Several book dealers and gallery owners expressed an interest in distributing it. Some bibliophiles bought it for its book-qualities alone! I can't say that I was born to sell, but having a top-quality product like Legacy to flog made the whole process quite enjoyable. I found myself wanting to phone Cecile Noordzij, the book designer, every time I received another compliment, and wished that she could share in the pleasure of receiving them all.

Very pleasant social bonds quickly developed among the dealers in the booths. I came to appreciate and enjoy my various exhibition "neighbours", all of whom were kind and very interesting people: Diane Hall and Alan Marcuson from Brussels, who had made a spectacular display of their colourful kimonos, the Verne family from Ohio known for their beautiful and diverse Japanese prints (the Verne Collection), Keith and Curtis Clemson, as new to this game as I and with a sumptuous array of gold-decorated Sumatran textiles (and an astonishing collection of excellent Batak textiles), Rudolf and Karin Smend from Cologne, world-famous for their exquisite Javanese batiks, Wen Hua with her treasures from the Silk Road, Lee, Vichai and Chad Chinalai with their unusual and popular array of ancient and modern adornments from Thailand, Louis Nierijnk, with whom I could speak Dutch, and his eclectic Southeast Asian array. We talked, laughed and ate together, congratulated each other on our successes, commiserated with each other's rueful moments of bad luck, looked after each other's stalls to facilitate coffee and toilet breaks and generally enjoyed getting to know each other. The whole event could hardly have been more convivial! 

Diane Hall and Alan Marcuson from Brussels in front of their spectacular display of colourful kimonos. Photo Sandra Niessen

Of course, the visitors to my stall and the book buyers were a great pleasure to meet, many of them happy to share the origins of their interest in textiles, books and Asia, their knowledge of weaving and so on. Several of them were in the throes of publishing their own books! Respect for their privacy keeps me from publishing their names -- but I was aware that I could write a tome as thick as Legacy  about Legacy's buyers....  
The Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason in San Francisco is now gearing up for the next fair: Tribal and Textile Arts. Apparently this second one is even better subscribed to than the first with not an inch of space to accomodate another booth. It is promising to be an even busier weekend...

(See some photographic impressions of exhibitors and visitors to the two shows).

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Batak textiles at SF Arts of the Pacific Asia Show

Yesterday evening, just as the sun was glowing red on the San Francisco horizon, Thomas Murray, the well-known collector and dealer of Asian art, and I arrived at the Festival Pavilion of Fort Mason. Tom had wanted to give me a sense of the place and where I would be situated when I sell Legacy in cloth at the Arts of Pacific Asia Fair this coming weekend.

We had spent the entire day, and the day before, reviewing his Batak textile collection. To my great joy, Tom agreed to make his textiles available for the exhibit that the fair organizers are developing for my book. It is a thrill for me to have one of the best collections in the world of Batak textiles accompany me at this event. (See photo gallery of Legacy being promoted against a background of Tom's collection.)

Tom and I agree that Batak textiles have not yet received the attention that they clearly deserve. The subtle, quiet beauty of the old pieces require contemplative appreciation of their detail. We are hopeful that when Legacy in cloth is displayed -- as it will be -- at the entrance of the fair where every single visitor will see it, and when a great number of the textile categories described within the book are illustrated -- as they will be -- with top-quality examples from Tom's collection, Batak textiles will make their entry on the radar of aficionados of Asian art. (See photo gallery of Legacy being promoted against a background of Tom's collection.)

Batak textiles from the collection of Thomas Murray hanging at the Arts of Pacific Asia in San Francisco, Feb 2010 - photo Sandra Niessen.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Shared Cultural Heritage

I wrote Legacy in Cloth with Batak weavers in mind and the many, many other Batak who showed me hospitality, kindness and patience. I always find it problematic when anthropologists don't take the time and trouble to show their " products" to the hosting populations who gave them their information in the first place, hence my plan to return the weaving heritage to Batak villages in the form of this book.

Of course such a plan has pitfalls, e.g. the errors and misplaced emphases in my book can take on a life of their own. However, what never occurred to me -- perhaps because I never dreamed that the book would be published as lavishly as it was -- was that the book might also engender some wariness amongst Batak readers. I SHOULD have thought of this. After all, while doing my fieldwork, when I showed photographs of museum pieces to the villages in North Sumatra, their reactions were mixed, everything from awareness of unfairness: " How do you get access to these things while we don't? " to distrust, " No, we never wove that way." to covetousness " Please give me the picture when you leave because I find it inspiring." With this book, I wanted to give all Batak the opportunity to own all of the photographs. As I said, this desire was born of my thankfulness to my hosts.

There aren't many copies of the book yet in North Sumatra (the first shipment got held up for 4 months in customs) and I haven't had much opportunity to observe reactions to it yet. However, I already notice a recurring theme, viz. perplexity tinged with scepticism. I am the "belanda" or the " orang asing" who wrote the definitive book about an element of Batak heritage. That doesn't sit right. It was alright to ask my Batak friends and acquaintances for information about their heritage, but who am I to GIVE the Batak information about their heritage?

I also hasten to point out that it is designers like Merdi Sihombing who will take Batak textiles into the future and give the art a niche in modern life. I hope with all my heart that my book might be useful to people like him. If it can contribute to any form of maintenance or revival of the art, then I will be satisfied and happy.

But there is another side to this story. Acknowledging the fact that the Batak weaving arts belong unquestionably to the Batak and that nobody can legitimately appropriate them, then there is still the fact that hundreds of Batak woven textiles have found their way into museums in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, USA, Denmark....where they have been tended (many of them for a century or more), exhibited, researched, documented, used in demonstrations, researched and written about -- essentially played a variety of roles in Western history and culture. Moreover, by virtue of transfer -- through some form of exchange or gift-giving -- they are now " owned" by the West and have become, consequently, part of Western heritage. They are testimonials to relationships of all kinds: colonial, tourist, artistic, familial...

My book, Legacy in cloth is therefore about a Western as well as a Batak cultural heritage. I enjoy the irony that despite the suspect origins of Western museums and my discipline of anthropology, quite unbeknownst to the original collectors (and to writers like myself) our efforts can now be appropriated and used by the original hosting cultures to their own advantage, however they deem fit.
To my Batak friends, I say: I do not have the last word. Write your corrections on the pages! Use this book for inspiration! Argue with its premises! Remould it to make it fit your needs! I have written my insights derived from my experiences and I will continue to do that. The heritage that I have written about is not only shared between North Sumatra and North America and Northern Europe, but with the whole world. Let us build together on the legacies of our respective ancestors.