Friday, March 11, 2011

Closer to Threads of Life

In March 2009, I gave the first copy of Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to Threads of Life. At the time, I had not yet met them. I had only heard about their work and read about them on their website. I was excited about their cause and felt that my book, while academic, was written in the spirit of their own very practical work keeping Indonesian weaving traditions alive. I wanted to use the public occasion of my book launch to highlight what they do. It is now two years later. I have now met Threads of Life and learned first hand about what they do.

It has all been sparked by Legacy in cloth. They found that the book offered potential as a foundation for working in the Batak area. Until now, they have always worked in Eastern Indonesia. When I was in the Batak region last October/November, some members of the YPBB Foundation, the research arm of Threads of Life, joined me. They wanted to pinpoint places where they could begin to work.

The men in the photograph, from left to right, are Daud, Pung, Nashir and Frog.
The women are former weavers in Sianjur MulaMula

I enjoyed Jean Howe's company alot during those travels. (Photo MJA Nashir)
Phase two of our collaborative plan is happening now, in Bali. I am being given the opportunity to explore what they do and how they do it. The visit is touching me in the very marrow of my anthropological soul. In the first place it is fun to renew my acquaintance with Pung, Frog and Jean Howe, who visited North Sumatra. They shared openly and alot at that time. Now I am seeing them on their home turf. Threads of Life is a beehive of activity. What they do is careful, thoughtful, and complex. I am discovering that I have been given an opportunity to be privy to what I will not hesitate to call one of the most extraordinary experiments in the textile world. My respect and admiration for this organization grows with each passing day.
I have seen their natural dye laboratory/studio, poked my way through their shop, gone behind the scenes in their offices to see their data banks, day-to-day operations and textile stores, and visited field sites in Timor and Bali. All the while, I have been able to talk with them endlessly about what they do and why they do it that way.

Examining one of Ompu Okta's mother's textiles in the Threads of Life office.
Frog is to the left, Jean Howe is pointing thoughtfully to the beadwork in the cloth,
and Pung is to the right. These three had joined me in North Sumatra in November.
Central to their work, and the reason why I find their work excellent, is their sensitivity to the cultures in which they operate and their intense awareness (and learning) of the role that textiles play in those cultures. The revival of textiles often (if not inevitably) resides at the heart of cultural revival. Jean Howe told me yesterday that cultural revival was perhaps their most important goal when they started their business more than a decade ago. And this is what clearly excites the members. Pung, Frog and Sujata, the dye team, have told me many tales about the discovery of natural dye recipes. They do not enter a new area with the tried and true recipes that they know, but facilitate the remembrance of the local recipes and colours. This is a sensitive process that may take years. During the process, the team works like a partner, noting (what is remembered of) the recipe, going back to the lab to try it out, returning to the people to compare results, assisting and troubleshooting aided by their knowledge of the chemistry of the dyes… until they finally get the results they are looking for. In this way, they revive not just the natural dyes, but also local recipes and colours (each dye yields a vast array of colour and each region has its own recipes and preferred tints and tones) and stimulate the revival/retention of that exciting diversity that characterizes Indonesian culture.
Colour is just one facet of the process of textile renewal. Ancient textiles may be “replicated” in appearance, but when they are revived in this cultural sense, including songs, techniques and equipment, associated rituals and so on, this is what is truly exciting and laudable. And this is what Threads of Life does.

On the first day of my visit here in Bali, I saw some “revival textiles” in the Threads of Life storage area that filled me with such emotion that I later had to sit down and try to figure out what was going on inside me. It is hard to explain. At first I described it as akin to the first time I saw impressionist paintings in Paris after having learned to love them in books and postcards. But the wellspring of my emotion was much deeper  than that. I love the quality of the ancient textiles of Indonesia but for so long they have also been the source of a dull, sad ache because I know they represent a past era. Modern products are different. They are not as fine, they are more standardized so that the weaver’s hand is virtually absent as a signature, the materials from which they are made are usually inferior, and so on. In my writings, I have described and analyzed the kinds of changes that have taken place and the social and economic reasons for these changes. Seeing revived textiles has moved me to tears. It is like witnessing a miracle.

 Oh Shoppers, when you go to the Threads of Life shop in Bali, know what you buy! Your purchase is supporting indigenous Indonesian culture, making a tiny bit of room for it in this world.

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