Saturday, June 19, 2010

Piercing the Bubble

It is 3:30 a.m. I am gearing up for our departure at 8 am. It was postponed for one day to accommodate the schedule of my photographer, Mas Nashir. I spent that extra day in luxury: a large, air-conditioned room in a delicious hotel. With pleasure, I joined the world that I describe as a bubble.

It is a fake world far from the heat and the grime of Medan streets, far from soil and plants, not a whiff of poverty in the filtered air. People transfer from their air-conditioned rooms to their air-conditioned vehicles to air-conditioned malls and back again. It reminds me of Edmonton, Canada, where people transfer in a comparable way without ever having to pull on a coat, even in the deadly cold of winter. It is a comfortable life: a bubble.

I flip back in my notebook to a blog entitled “The Poverty of Wealth” that I never got around to posting. I want to read my thoughts of 2 weeks ago. It was impossible not to be struck, in Jakarta and in Medan (Indonesia’s third-largest city), by the spectacular displays of luxurious wealth. Oscillating between these cities and the Batak villages, it was equally impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the easy expenditure on a first-class hotel room and the difficult earnings of a weaver: a weaver must toil diligently for several months, making one textile a week, to make close to the rental of one of these rooms for a single night. And the rooms, by European standards, are not even expensive.

Superficial “bubble life”, guided by passing fads, comes at the expense of the survival of indigenous culture. Bubble life is our monument to financial success. Everywhere, people scurry to “keep up” with financial demands and trends. Weavers weave ever more quickly, ever more loosely, with increasing division of labour, making ever-more standardized products using faster machinery – and end up not with more wealth (they cannot keep abreast with the rate of change) but with a hollowed-out art form that has lost its indigenous value, and has no allure in the bubble world. It becomes a lost art in every sense. Both integrity and desirability are gone: a huge price to pay for worse than “disappointing” results.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a conversation with Torang Sitorus and Henny Harsha over a cup of hot chocolate (the bill for three beverages came to half the price of a hand-woven cloth) about the future of Batak textiles. Current production is following in the footsteps of the industrial revolution. The old cloths are forgotten rarities. My fellow conversationalists talked about displaying the antique cloths in malls to awaken demand. These textiles can only become viable again if they register in the glamorous bubble world. Desire must be kindled.

The problem, then, will be at the supply side. No weaver can afford the cost of time and materials that it takes to produce a beautiful, old-style cloth of integrity. She will have to be supported.

But a seed has been planted. Henny Harsha is a member of the Indonesian Heritage Society and a textile-lover. Torang Sitorus has fallen in love with the traditional textiles of his own Batak culture and wants to promote them. The two of them want to combine forces to make a mall exhibit, thereby placing Batak textiles in the heart of bubble culture.

My own work right now focuses on the weavers, handing over to them the visual record of their own weaving tradition, something they could never afford to purchase on their own. Yes, I am distinctly aware that Legacy in cloth could be used to stimulate market demand for the beautiful old items, but I will leave that work, at least for the time being, to creative people like Torang Sitorus, Henny Harsha, Merdi Sihombing and Sebastian Hutabarat and I will continue to plant seeds. Today I head off in my air-conditioned car for the villages.

* Yesterday, I gave Henny Harsha a copy of Legacy in cloth to thank her for her assistance in importing and storing the book in Medan until my arrival. This book was donated with the generous assistance of Henk and Margot van Dalen who wanted to support the project in any undesignated way that would be helpful to me.

** I gave Torang Sitorus a copy last week on Samosir Island in the name of the Soroptimists of Arnhem (see blog “Didn’t pay? It was costing money!”). I think that book has turned out to be an important investment. Moreover, Torang fills high-end requests for Batak textiles and offers many weavers, thereby, a livelihood.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

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