Friday, December 16, 2011

Genealogical Riddle Solved

As the strange ways of luck and synchronicity would have it, not too long ago, on the very same day and at the very same moment, I received emails from two unrelated people both offering me the complete overview of the descendants of Elize van Zuylen-Niessen. Both were responding to my blogs about Pekalongan in which I scratched my head and wondered out loud about my genealogical connections with Elize, the remarkable and famous batik maker in Northern Java.
Photo by MJA Nashir
Sandra Niessen holding up a batik made by
Eliza van Zuylen Niessen

Both thought that I might be a descendant but I knew that this was not the case and that I would have to dig much further back, before the birth of Elize’s father. One of my correspondents was able to tell me enough about Elize’s father’s family that I could finally make the connection. The great grandfather of Elize’s father’s was also my ancestor, a man called Wijnand Niessen, born in 1712 in Hundshoven, The Netherlands.

In the 18th century, the enterprising son of Wijnand Niessen, named Dionicius, left home and settled in Buren further north. For generations his branch of the family, from which I hail, lived along the Lek/Rhine river leading to Rotterdam. Elize’s father’s people stayed in the region around Heerlen, Sittard and Hundshoven. Her father, Matthias Nicolaas (the spelling varies), after a long stay in the Netherlands East Indies, returned to the region of his youth where he died.

Elize van Zuylen-Niessen’s father, Matthias Nicolaas Niessen, was a KNIL (Royal Dutch-East Indies Army) officer who received a military medal called the Willemsorde. He fought in Bali in 1849, in Borneo in 1850 and Riau (Sumatra) in 1858 and 1959. He was then Luitenant.

Elize’s mother, Elisabeth Christina Anna Geertruida von Ranzow, was the fourth generation of the Von Ranzow family to live in the East. Her great great grandfather sailed for Ceylon from Germany. Two generations of his descendants lived on that VOC Island, but her father was born on board ship heading towards Batavia. His mother was a “princess” from Palembang.

In other words, aside from a common last name, probably half of The Netherlands, to say nothing of a certain family in Palembang, is as closely related to Elize van Zuylen Niessen as I am. There are 6 generations between myself and the ancestor that Elize and I have in common. Moreover, Wijnand, our common ancestor, married twice; she descends from the second wife while I descend from the first. Very distant family indeed. Nevertheless, it is always nice to have an illustrious family member; I enjoy feeling a personal attachment to her life and times in Indonesia.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Gave a Teg Talk!

No, that’s not a spelling error. TEG stands for Textile Enthusiasts Group and the group gathers in Singapore.

It was Genevieve Duggan, well known for her book, Ikats of Savu (2001, White Lotus Press) who got the ball rolling. I was going to drop in for a day in Singapore on my way home from Jakarta anyway, so, she said, why not get to know the textile enthusiasts in Singapore while I was there? Why not, indeed! I would have my exhibition textiles with me, and the co-ordinator of this TEG event, Shook Fong Tan, and her husband would be kind enough to pick me (with my heavy bags) up at the airport.

Photo by Lewa Pardomuan of me delivering my TEG Talk
The obvious thing to talk about, it seemed to me, would be the Pulang Kampung expedition and the upshot of the journey. I had all of MJA Nashir’s pictures with me to make a slide show and one of Restuala Namora Pakpahan’s first “revival textiles” from Muara coloured red with natural dye. He gave it to me just before I left Jakarta to remind me that I am the “International Ambassador of Sopo Sorha Harungguan”. I wanted to highlight the importance of bringing research findings back to the peoples from whom the information originated: they who are so deserving, have so little access to libraries and knowledge about their own culture and history, and yet are more often than not forgotten when it comes to “dissemination of findings”.

It was a warm group of enthusiasts (the name fits!), many of whom clearly had a very sophisticated level of knowledge. Spontaneously, I asked them for support for Restuala’s revival work. I had shared with them the importance of North-South partnerships when it comes to keeping indigenous art/craft traditions alive, so I decided to “walk the talk.” The donations that flowed in were so generous that I was gratified and touched.

I was pleased that Lewa Pardomuan, a new acquaintance and passionate textile collector, was in the room as well as Kim Jane Saunders (author of Contemporary Tie and Dye Textiles of Indonesia, 1997) with whom I had apparently corresponded in years past. A new acquaintance was Yvonne Koh, who contacted me through my website shortly before my talk. Because she lived in Singapore, it was possible for her to attend. She turns out to be an inveterate blogger, so I have been able to get to know her a little bit after the fact. These three people, and many more in the room, shared my sense of urgency for undertaking action to keep indigenous weaving traditions alive.

The TEG group kindly arranged for me to pre-view the spectacular Patterns of Trade: Indian Textiles For Export, 1400–1900 exhibition (15 Nov 2011 - 03 Jun 2012) in the Asian Civilizations Museum just after my talk. The tour with the Southeast Asia curator, David Henkel, was a rather special privilege as the exhibition had not yet opened. Indeed, I would not have wanted to miss it. It was inspiring, spell-binding and endlessly insightful to witness dozens of Indian trade textiles together in one place.

At the end of the day, Digna Ryan, one of the co-ordinators of the TEG group, invited some of us to dinner in her beautiful home: a gracious and delicious send-off before settling into a night of flying.

Thank you, TEG Singapore for an excellent experience.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Setting up Sopo Sorha

The decline of Batak culture is not sitting well with me. Not at all. I see it most clearly from the vantage point of the weaving arts. Yes, there are still weavers. People can point to them and say, “See, the weaving craft in the batak area is still alive.” But I see something different: the most skilled and advanced manipulations of the loom have been forgotten; the social rules enforcing quality have been forgotten; most of the motifs have been forgotten; weavers have been forced by the market to adopt a division of labour and their weaverly knowlddge has narrowed. When the oldest generation passes away, the sophisticated knowledge of one of the richest and most beautiful weaving traditions in the archipelago will have disappeared, even though there may still be a few weavers left, toiling over their South Sumatran look-alike textiles that are the only ones truly viable on the market.

Restuala Namora Pakpahan’s Sopo Sorha Harungguan in the bay of Muara, where the weavers are trying to revive the weaving arts, is a precious oasis of cultural truth in the cultural sahel. The weavers there are keen to weave the cloths that they admire and that their ancestors wove. They are being aided by staff from YPBB, who are helping them recover their natural dye recipes. Before I left Indonesia, Restuala presented me with a textile, just freshly cut out of the loom, completely dyed with Morinda citrifolia, the indigenous Batak red colour. I was overwhelmed by this expression of hope.

I agree with Restuala’s initiative and goals. He has asked me to be the Foreign Ambassador of Sopo Sorha Harungguan and I have agreed to accept this posting and all of the responsibilities that it entails. I have been "in-vested" and his red natural-dyed textile is my cloak of ermine.

My horses are galloping away in front of me. I envision the following:

• the construction of a sustainable weaving centre that will provide an example of future architecture with a minimal ecological footprint

• purchase and storage of excellent collections of textiles to use as templates for the weavers

• conservation training programs for young people so that they can look after their collections

• curatorial training for young people so that they can learn how to develop high quality exhibitions

• record and revive techniques on the brink of extinction by organizing workshops with the last remaining practitioners of the techniques

• facilties for people who want to come (from afar) to learn weaving

• write children’s books about weaving

• facilities to organize and participate in a wider textile community: nationwide, ASEAN, or Worldwide (Indigenous Weavers Unite!); they can learn from each other and stimulate each other

• develop natural dyes

• develop marketing programs

• develop language training programs

• translate Legacy in cloth into Indonesian and/or Batak

• development of an annual prize to highlight the extraordinary accomplishment of a Batak weaver or weaver-champion.

I am looking for sponsors: local corporations that are active in the Batak area and want to “give something back”, individuals who want “to make a difference in the world”, granting programs, existing organizations that would like to support these initiatives. Where there is a will, there is a way.

O Tano Batak

Back in The Netherlands. Home after 2 months in Indonesia. It is not yet clear what my next step will be. My mind is crowded by the possible projects I envision. I feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. The alarming statistics about the decline and loss of human cultures were once only statistics. During this last trip to Asia, they froze my heart as I witnessed the desertification of the Batak homelands. Desertification because the villages are being deserted; many have become lonely and desolate; Desertification because the villages have becomes resource deserts: no knowledge, no vibrancy, no future and, worst of all, nobody who cares.

This is Tano Batak today, physically one of the most spectacular places on Planet Earth: stunning nature surrounding an indescribably beautiful crater lake. What stands out is the merciless need for the remaining inhabitants to run after a few pennies to survive. That there are no garbage systems as a result of which the plastic of decades is cumulatively decorating but not beautifying the landscape. Opulent mausoleums built to the ancestors represent almost the only influx of capital from migrant Bataks. Tano Batak is becoming a burial ground. A place of refuse. The contrast is painful. From a vantage point overlooking Lake Toba, the heart misses a beat. The landscape is so generous. It gives its all. Down below, the culture has become so stingy, grasping, needy -- and it is eroding the natural bounty. O Tano Batak, indeed! The memories of past history, social rules and ceremonies, indigenous crafts (the mouthpieces of thought systems), all have almost entirely disappeared. How often have young people said to me, “How can I love my culture if I don’t know anything about it?” There is nothing there anymore to teach them to love their history and culture.

Culturelessness, a state that is being encouraged by TV commercials and malls, is a social time bomb. A people that is rootless and without social norms and rules that can be enforced is vulnerable. They can fall prey to further agents of destruction: substance addictions, extremism and intolerance of thought, inability to take responsibility.

This crisis is as great as the current global economic crisis. Where are the sage heads bowing over this problem and working feverishly on solutions? The solutions need to be found in our generation.