Sunday, December 06, 2015

A wasted opportunity? Pulang Kampung is about access...

The Delft municipal government finds the Indonesian ethnographic collections in Museum Nusantara too expensive to keep and the central government of The Netherlands is unwilling to fork out what it takes to keep the collections in other Dutch museums. According to an article in a Dutch newspaper, the Indonesian government will receive the cast-off collections with enthusiasm and is even willing to lavish a new building on them. On the face of things, the discarded ethnographic collection from Museum Nusantara in Delft will go back to its rightful home, whence it came, Pulang Kampung in irreproachable style and glory.

Volkskrant 27 November 2015

The decision to de-accession the collections is financially rational. The Delft municipality made hefty real estate investments when the economy was flourishing. The financial crisis was especially hard on Dutch real estate and the return on those Delft investments was negative. Assets had to be discarded and Museum Nusantara was one of the victims, despite a huge public outcry especially from the academic community that was aware that the museum housed some of the oldest and best Indonesian collections in The Netherlands -- and the world.

The decision to allow a segment of the collections (we don't yet know how big that segment will be) to be repatriated appears modern, gallant, appropriately un-colonial, good for public relations, good for all parties concerned.

In museum and historical terms, however, the timing is bad. The newspaper article cites 'lack of visitors' as the reason for disbanding the collections, all the while museum specialists are writing about a new golden age for these apparently dusty institutions. An important new role is being nipped in the bud.

What is the new role for ethnographic museums? It has to do with reaping the cultural benefits of having stored ethnographic objects so long and so well. While they have lain safely and inert in their depots, indigenous cultures whence the objects originated, have gone into overdrive in the race to become 'modern'. But the value of things increases when they are lost. Now indigenous researchers, artists, and cultural leaders everywhere are trying to get back in touch with what once was. Their quest is about identity, self-respect and pride, about having a historical foundation on which to build a future -- an antidote to the seduction of terrorist ideologies and anomy.

It is not just that the objects in Dutch museums are stored well, but that they are increasingly accessible. Accessibility increased hugely in the digital age. Currently, anyone anywhere in the world can look at the Dutch ethnographic collections on-line and read about the circumstances of their collection and the data that were acquired with them. Pedestals, spotlights, sumptuous displays and restricted access present the objects of daily life as exotic treasures. The digital revolution reverses that and places the objects in the minds of anyone who has a computer or a smart phone. Collections accessibility hasn't yet been fully achieved, but museums are moving in the direction of making them truly 'public' holdings. Objects that were once collected for Western ends can now benefit the people who originally made them, precisely because the West stored them so long and so well, an ironic but very nice twist of fate.  It is not just about "us", the custodians in the West, for a change. In its noble new role, ethnographic museums can interact in mutually beneficial ways with indigenous cultures.

The newspaper article quotes the museum director as saying that the collection will remain accessible to the public. Was the director referring to the fact that the objects are going to a public institution instead of being sold off to private collectors? My concern is that, public institution or not, the collections will lose their accessibility. I know from vast, frustrating personal experience the amount of red tape that one has to wade through to gain access to Indonesian archives -- even the ones that were sent back from The Netherlands to Indonesia. Sometimes after spending time and money one ends up empty-handed. Even when the archives being sought have no political import and represent no threat. I know many first-hand stories about how Indonesian collections have been lost, stolen and even sold from public libraries, museums and archives, how important documentation has been thrown out because nobody could read the Dutch or recognize the name of the maker.

Furthermore, granting access to public collections means granting lots of money to the techniques of making them available. Does Indonesia have this intention? What will the follow-up funding be, after that expensive new building is constructed?

I am a champion of repatriation hence my focus on Pulang Kampung projects during the past five years. Precisely because I recognize the crucial importance of granting indigenous access to cultural objects of the past, I view this return of Dutch collections with a measure of skepticism. They are going back to the capital city, not to the villages. That makes sense; they can be well stored and maintained in a building suited
to that purpose. But they won't have come closer to their indigenous homes and, in terms of accessibility they may end up farther removed than ever. What a shame when these objects have been stored for so long and so well and have such great importance.

I would have preferred it if an innovative 'accessibility program' had been developed collaboratively between the Indonesian and Dutch museums and departments, in the spirit of shared cultural heritage. After all, the objects do also represent Dutch cultural heritage to an extent too often forgotten (embedded in the who, the rationale and the circumstances of collection and donation). I would have preferred it if the Indonesian money had been earmarked, not for a piece of architecture on one of the most expensive plots of land in the world, but for inventing a path breaking program for expanding access to the objects for the people outside the capital city. A program to translate the Dutch documentation into Indonesian would have been a really good start. Focus on accessibility would have allowed Indonesian researchers and collections managers to develop an expertise that is unique in the world and Indonesian society would have been able to reap the rewards in terms of cultural regeneration and health.

I fear that the objects are being brought back as treasures. The status of 'treasure' stands in the way of cultural regeneration. The Indonesians could have left the punctilious task of maintenance and storage to the Dutch who have established their credentials in that field, and just reaped the benefits. I fear that they are saddling themselves with the burden of ownership for the sake of a museum-going elite and for the face of things. This is a step backward if one considers what these collections could have meant for Indonesian society if they had remained, for the time being (not forever), in The Netherlands and strategies had been developed to expand indigenous access to them. Indonesia could have chosen to assume a leadership position rather than a follower position.

Recommended additional reading:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Day of Pride for the SMA Negeri students in Silalahi

Yesterday I received an email from the Director of the SMA school in Silalahi, Mr Sadiman Sigiro. He wrote:
“We are making an ulos exhibition, to show the results of students of the SMA Negeri school Silahisabungan... 14 - 15 November 2015 ...with C.F. Sidjabat. We ask for your blessings. Thanks. Greetings and prayers.”
This touched me deeply. How dedicated Mr. Sadiron Sigiro is. How he longs for success in his curriculum experiment  --  he is the first in the Batak area to incorporate weaving in his school’s curriculum. He cares deeply about his culture. 

I was able to attend the grand opening of his program earlier this year. I am sorry that I cannot be there now to see the results of his students’ efforts.

Mr. Sadiman Sigiro opens the weaving lessons in his
SMA school in Silalahi, North Sumatra.

I know that the program is new, experimental and still in its early stages. Mr. C.F. Sidjabat, the initiator of the program wrote to me on the same day as the school director and he confided his concern because young people are not anxious to learn to weave. And of course the future of this weaving tradition depends on them. The last three weavers of the famous and most important of the Silalahi textile tradition, the gobar, are in their mid-70s. A generation has been lost. If the current generation does not learn the art, this distinctive and unique heritage will be lost forever. “It is critical. We have to do something,” he said.

There is so much that is sad in the world today. There are fires raging in the rainforests of Sumatra right now. The Sumatran tiger, elephant and orangutang and many other species are on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat. The weaving arts in the same critical state. They are suffering a loss of cultural habitat, engulfed by the flames of a materialism that is impoverishing the world.

I imagine that if I was in Silalahi today and tomorrow, I would be given a microphone to deliver some words to the young weavers of the textiles in the exhibition. I would stand there and feel gratitude for the opportunity to express my appreciation to the young weavers and I would want to convey to them my sense of the value of their work. Most of them have not traveled far afield, maybe no further than Medan. Their knowledge of the world is limited. How could I impress upon them the value of their efforts? 

Dear dedicated and skilled young weavers,

Throughout the world the arts of indigenous peoples are threatened with extinction. Despite their beauty, their great age, the history wrapped up in their techniques and design, their sophistication. The most beautiful expressions of human creativity are destined to be lost forever because they are not supported by social and economic circumstances. Their loss will be mourned forever.

I believer, however, that a few traditions may survive. If they do, this will be because of the hard work, talent, creative insight, and incisive actions on the part of a few people. People such as you. 

I congratulate the young women of Silalahi who are learning the art of Batak weaving and investing many, many hours in the task. I know that you long for a good future for yourself and your future family. Please know that you are not working in isolation. There are Batak people and ulos aficionados everywhere who applaud your efforts and are proud of you. I believe there will come a day when you will reap the rewards of your steadfastness and your skill. You will be recognized as a cultural heroes and your work as cultural treasures. There will not be many of you who can still do this work. I honor your efforts. 

I ask you to recognize the value of your work, to believe in your efforts.

I would also address some words to the bystanders -- and now to all readers of this blog:

Dear witnesses of this unique Silalahi weaving program,

It is possible for you to play an active role to ensure the vitality of this program. I invite you to commission a textile from these young women. Place your orders through me and I will make sure your order is received. I will ask good prices from you so that the young people will be stimulated to continue. Continuing their art should not be a condemnation to poverty. They cannot do it alone; it takes a world to nurture a weaving tradition. Let us build it together and not leave it to flounder. Let us express our appreciation concretely, in a way that makes it possible for the young women to continue. Their mothers and grandmothers were forced to stop because their efforts did not earn them a living wage.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bulang Pulang

A remarkable Batak textile fell out of the skies and into my lap. It is a beautiful, old Simalungun bulang, very fragile. It’s previous owner, Nancy Barr, lives in Alaska. Years ago she found me on the internet and asked me the provenance of this cloth that she had purchased on e-Bay. And now she has bestowed me with it claiming a change in her circumstances – and also out of respect for my work. I had forgotten the details of that cloth from years ago, but when I opened the carefully wrapped package, I had to pinch myself. It was a Simalungun bulang. And the bulang used to be made in Lasma’s village, Nagori Tongah. It felt like I had received a message, but a message that I didn’t quite know how to fully interpret.

This bulang is handspun and dyed with the plant called mangkudu.
The photograph gives a sense of its worn fragility but also the soft faded
colour and the beautiful weave
This bulang feels precious, like a sacred trust. I have no bulang like it in my collection. It is made of handspun yarns that are dyed with natural dyes and I certainly long to be “the owner”. But it doesn’t feel quite right to just store it with my other textiles. Surely it is destined for greater things. It is fraying at the edges and there is a hole in it. It has had a long life and has been well used on top of having travelled internationally. Surely the textile has come to me for a special purpose.

Last August I went to Indonesia. It would be a busy trip but I was able to arrange things so that I could spend a week in North Sumatra to be with my daughter, Lasma. I couldn’t resist bringing the textile with me. What would Lasma think of it? I went straight to her village upon landing.

I carefully rolled and wrapped the bulang so that it would not be damaged by the journey. When the right moment came, I unrolled it. And there it was, back home. This cloth that had once been worn everyday by a Simalungun woman (perhaps it had been worn by its weaver) was back in Simalungun. More than a century ago when the cloth was made, women in many Simalungun villages would have woven the bulang. There was no way of knowing which village it hailed from, but there was always the chance that it had actually been made in Lasma’s village and that I had truly brought it back home. How wonderful to consider. This cloth from Nancy Barr in Alaska, obtained on e-Bay from someone who had inherited it from his parents and knew nothing about it, now back in Tano Batak. Back to the village; pulang kampung.
Lasma's mother points out a detail in the supplementary warp

I watched Lasma’s reaction. Her mother and her aunt, her father and her younger siblings, as well as some men from the village who had come to their little cafĂ© to drink a cup of coffee, looked on.  What leapt out were the similarities and differences with the bulang they knew. While nobody makes the cloth anymore, Lasma’s mother and aunt used to weave it. There were no oohs and aahs of surprise; the patterning had remained remarkably constant. There was delight at the natural colour and the fineness of the yarn and the weaving. It was familiar to them.
Lasma inspected the cloth minutely

I wondered if the cloth inspired Lasma. She inspected it minutely but I couldn’t see whether she had fallen in love with it.

Lasma shows Pung from the Bebali 
Foundation and Jean Howe (to the 
right,  not in the picture) the bulang 
from her tradition.
During the following week I brought her to Bali to meet the crew at Threads of Life, the company that specializes in Indonesian textile revitalization. There, Jean Howe, one of the founders of Threads of Life, instantly fell in love with it. It felt good to show them a Batak textile that they didn’t yet have in their collection. And to give Lasma a sense of where her future market could be found. She witnessed how much a bulang could be admired somewhere else in the world.

Lasma learned about working with mangkudu dye when
she visited Threads of Life in Bali. The learning process
is long and dyeing with mangkudu also takes a great deal of time.
After our journey to Bali, Lasma returned to Tano Batak. She was anxious to get to work carried by the energy of her new inspiration.  She was full of
I showed the textile to students in
Pematang Siantar. Wherever I went, I took
advantage of opportunities to show Batak people
this remarkable piece of their heritage.
enthusiasm. I continued on the rest of my journey alone.

When the trip was over, because of its fragility, I brought the bulang home with me again.

The bulang is here with me now again in The Netherlands, rolled and safe  -- and still undeniably present. It has gone back to the villages for a short visit, but it is still like a scrolled message waiting to be interpreted. It is not mine. It goads me. It asks for revival.

My next step will be to contact the Batak weavers who attended our workshop and learned how to spin. Time to commission some handspun yarn, and I know someone who works with red mangkudu dye…

The future is still long. I hope that someday there will be a safe opportunity for this bulang to go back to the villages permanently.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hari Ulos Nasional (Sebuah perayaan warisan budaya tak benda? Saya rasa tidak.)

Kementrian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan telah mendaftar ulos Batak tradisional sebagai ‘warisan budaya tak benda nasional’ (‘national intangible cultural heritage’). Peringatan ini dirayakan di Jakarta dan Sumatera Utara pada tanggal 17 Oktober 2015 sebagai Hari Ulos Nasional dengan semangat untuk menjadikannya sebagai acara tahunan.
Panusunan Simanjuntak membacakan puisinya tentang ulos
Acara ini dirayakan secara megah. Berbagai pidato berkumandang; festival musik tradisional Batak (gondang) dan tarian tradisional (tortor) dimainkan; fashion show berbahan ulos diperagakan, film MJA Nashir dan saya “Rangsa ni Tonun” tentang teknik tenun Batak Toba diputar; dan Panusunan Simanjuntak membacakan puisinya tentang ulos kepada khalayak yang sangat apresiatif. Semua orang dimohon mengenakan ulos dan mereka lakukan. Ada kebanggaan, bahkan euforia.

Sementara saya di sini di Belanda dan hanya bisa merayakannya secara kecil-kecilan, tak lebih dari sekedar mengikuti proses perayaan tersebut melewati Facebook. Pada suatu pendapat saya membuat komentar bahwa tradisi ulos juga bisa dirayakan sebagai tangible heritage (warisan budaya benda). Sulit untuk menentukan dari segenap report yang ada di Facebook yang mana sesungguhnya bagian yang ‘intangible' yang masuk ke dalam perayaan tersebut, namun komentar saya tentang ‘tangible heritage’ Batak dimaksudkan untuk membuat orang mulai berpikir tentang perbedaan antara yang intangible dan yang tangible atas ulos.

Sejauh yang bisa saya tentukan, seperti juga yang biasa menjadi kutipan banyak orang tentang ulos: bahwa ulos merupakan tanda identitas Batak, pembawa berkah dari hulahula kepada boru dan menjadi kendaraan bagi doa karena tanpa itu doa tidak mampu mencapai dunia ruh/spiritualitas Batak tradisional (bahwa tak seorang pun lagi akan mengakui percaya dunia spiritualitas tradisional tersebut karena membawa sebuah stigma anti-Kristen). Apakah tidak ada hal-hal lainnya lagi yang merupakan intangible heritage (warisan budaya tak benda)?

Intangible Heritage, menurut UNESCO (tidak diragukan lagi inspirasi di balik program ini) meliputi tidak hanya unsur fisik (tangible) tapi "juga mencakup ekspresi hidup dan tradisi-tradisikelompok dan masyarakat yang tak terhitung jumlahnya di seluruh dunia yang telahdiwariskan dari nenek moyang mereka dan diturunkan kembali kepada keturunanmereka, dalam banyak kasus berlangsung secara lisan. "..." Sebagai penggerakkeragaman budaya, living heritagesangat rapuh.”

Bagi pikiran saya, ada ironi yang sangat menyedihkan dan mendalam di dalam perayaan warisan budaya tak benda dari ulos tersebut justru karena komponen yang telah punah itu. Saya masih bertanya-tanya apakah bagian 'intangible' dari ulos itu telah disinggung dengan cara apapun pada tanggal 17 Oktober? Keprihatinan saya adalah bahwa sangat sedikit yang diketahui lagi tentang bagian 'intangible' ulos. Jika para penyelenggara dan sekarang mereka ingin merayakan ulos dari segi ini, akankah hari perayaan itu tidak tampak berbeda? Maksud saya ini dalam arti harfiah. Sepertinya hari perayaan itu didasarkan pada status quo ulos yang nyata di masa sekarang.

Dari gambar yang saya lihat, sebagian besar tekstil yang dipakai adalah dari jenis desain Sadum. Sadum aslinya bukanlah ulos Batak Toba; asalnya dari Angkola. Menjadi terobosan secara perlahan selama abad ke-20, pertama ke Silindung, kemudian selebihnya ke Toba, lalu ke Simalungun dan Karo. Awalnya itu turun di luar adat tetapi hanya menjelang akhir abad lalu secara bertahap menjadi diterima, atau setidaknya tidak lagi dilarang, sebagai kain adat. Sekarang jenis kain ini telah menjadi desain ulos yang dominan yang telah memudarkan hampir semua jenis ulos lainnya (dengan pengecualian sesekali Ragi Hotang, Ragidup dan Pinunsaan dan suji Batak). Betapa ironis bahwa orang-orang justeru menggunakan desain kain Angkola ini untuk merayakan warisan tenun tak benda dari Toba! Inilah sebuah gejala kepunahan yang tanpa disadari atas warisan budaya takbenda dari Toba, dan bukannya cara untuk mendorong pelestariannya.

Kedua, saya melihat bahwa sebagian besar ulos yang dipakai adalah tenun ATBM (semi-mekanik) dan bukan tenun tradisional (tenun gedhogan). Kain-kain tenun itu dihiasi dengan benang sintetis yang tidak ada hubungannya dengan warisan tekstil lokal, tetapi merupakan gejala dari pengaruh eksternal yang relatif baru. Dalam pengalaman saya, warisan tak benda (intangible) dari ulos dinyatakan terutama dalam cara kain tradisional Batak yang dibuat melalui alat tenun gedhogan dan bukan hanya di dalam bagaimana kain-kain tersebut digunakan dalam ritual. Aturan desain dan teknik (ketakbendaan ulos) menghasilkan penyegaran fisik (kebendaan ulos) dari pemikiran tradisional Batak atau pandangan dunia (warisan budaya tak benda). Justru inilah yang telah menghilang dalam produksi ulos untuk pasar. Ada beberapa alasan untuk ini. Salah satunya adalah bahwa gereja telah mengecilkan pandangan dunia Batak tradisional. Lainnya adalah bahwa telah berlangsung lama di masa sekarang, pasar ulos belum mendukung karya terbaik yang bisa dibuat seorang penenun dengan waktu yang diperlukannya untuk menghasilkan kualitas tinggi. Sekarang penenun hanya menghasilkan yang serba cepat-cepat saja. Mereka dipaksa bersaing dengan produk yang lebih cepat dari alat tenun semi-mekanik (ATBM) tersebut. Dan itu berarti bahwa mereka akan selalu gagal! Mereka akan selalu memiliki rasa kekurangan karena pekerjaan mereka lebih lambat dan pendapatan mereka lebih kecil dari pemilik pabrik dan pekerja ATBM. Hal ini berdampak bagi tingkat kerja mereka, kualitasnya menjadi lebih rendah.

Saya ingin tahu dimana ada komponen dari perayaan tersebut yang telah dirancang untuk mendorong karya terbaik dan yang tradisional dari seorang penenun? Apakah ada tenunan yang telah diseleksi karena kandungan intangible tradisional mereka? Saya ragu karena justru itulah yang telah hilang. ‘Ulos terpanjang' yang dirayakan pada hari itu dibuat pada alat tenun semi-mekanis (ATBM). Apakah masih ada lagi orang Batak yang ingat bahwa ulos yang sangat panjang dulu dibuat dengan alat tenun gedhogan untuk digunakan selama horja bius, ritus tahunan besar merayakan kelangsungan hidup?

Ketiga, ada fashion show dari bahan bakal yang disebut 'ulos', tapi dari semua yang tampak itu, merupakan kain yang terbuat dari alat tenun ATBM. Fashionalisasi adalah fungsi dari kekuatan ekonomi global yang menggabungkan kepribumian (adat) tetapi meninggalkannya sedikit atau tak ada ruang lagi untuk berfungsi pada batasan-batasannya sendiri. Saya mencoba memahami produk fashion menggunakan kain ulos menjadi bertentangan dengan perayaan warisan budaya tak benda. Fashion dapat merayakan 'penampilan' dari ulos, merayakan desain dengan mengesampingkan komponen multi-dimensi ketakbendaan (intangible). Fashion ulos ditampilkan untuk memperagakan bahwa orang Batak telah memasuki ranah yang disebut 'modernitas'. Ironisnya lagi bahwa orang-orang ingin menunjukkan bahwa mereka adalah modern, padahal nyatanya 'modernitas' adalah semuanya yang telah mereka miliki. Sejarah kuno mereka atas warisan budaya tak benda telah hilang. Fashion menggerakkan tradisi ulos bahkan lebih menjauh dari warisan budaya tak benda yang agung dari masa silam.

Saya masih terus bertanya-tanya apakah ulos dapat dihidupkan kembali? Ini akan menjadi sebuah anakronisme jika dihidupkan kembali, referensi ke dunia Batak dari masa lalu. Saya percaya ada nilai dalam kebangkitan macam itu karena saya memperhatikan bahwa banyak orang Batak yang lapar dan haus akan pengetahuan tentang warisan mereka. Ini akan menghasilkan pemahaman yang lebih lengkap dari identitas mereka. Hari-hari di masa silam memang tidak akan pernah kembali, tetapi tradisi tenun masih bisa diturunkan menjadi sesuatu yang sangat berharga, yang artistik, yang bentuknya terbatas. Apakah itu masih ada di mana saja dalam bentuknya yang intangible? Karena kebangkitan tradisi ulos tergantung pada aksesibilitas pengetahuan intangible ini. Pengetahuan intangible adalah sumber dari kain yang tangible. Apa manfaat intangible warisan Batak dari adanya Hari Ulos Nasional? Apa manfaatnya bagi para penenun tradisional (gedhogan)?

Saya ingin mengeluarkan tantangan bagi para penyelenggara Hari Ulos Batak Nasional. Saya menantang Anda untuk memanfaatkan energi dan antusiasme perayaan ulos ini di tahun-tahun mendatang agar benar-benar bermanfaat bagi para penenun tradisional Batak. Saya menantang Anda untuk menyelidiki 'karakter ketakbendaan' (‘intangible character’) dari ulos Batak (di luar fungsi kain) dan kemudian membuatnya dikenal untuk anak cucu, merayakannya untuk anak-anak dan cucu-cucu Anda, sehingga generasi mendatang pun bisa mengaksesnya. Apa perlunya perayaan warisan budaya takbenda itu jika warisan itu punah? Apa sesungguhnya yang sedang dirayakan pada tanggal 17 Oktober? Apakah barangkali hanya sekedar kebanggan etnis Batak?

(Terjemahan oleh MJA Nashir.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

A celebration of intangible heritage? I don't think so.

Certificate of registry from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
A year ago, the Indonesian Ministry of Culture registered traditional Batak ‘ulos’ as ‘warisan budaya tak benda nasional’, that is, ‘national intangible cultural heritage’. This was celebrated in Jakarta and North Sumatra on 17 October 2015 as National Ulos Day with the additional resolve to make it an annual event.  
Invitation and line-up of events
from FB page of Enni Martalena
The event was celebrated in grand style. There were the requisite speeches; the festive Batak traditional music (gondang) was played, and traditional dances (tortor) were performed; a fashion show of clothing items made of ulos was staged; MJA Nashir’s and my film Rangsa ni Tonun about Toba Batak weaving techniques was shown, and Panusunan Simanjuntak recited his poem about ulos to a highly appreciative audience. Everybody was asked to wear ulos and they did. There was pride, even euphoria.

Panusunan Simandjuntak recited his poem about ulos.
Photo credit: Tatan Daniel

I am here in The Netherlands and I can do little more than follow the proceedings on Facebook. At one point I made a comment that the ulos tradition could also be celebrated as tangible heritage (budaya benda). It is difficult to determine from Facebook reports where the ‘intangible’ part came into the celebrations (or even if it was the intention), but my remark about Batak tangible heritage was meant to make people think about the difference between intangible and tangible ulos.

As far as I have been able to determine, the usual things were being cited about ulos: it is a sign of Batak identity, a carrier of blessings  from wife-givers to wife-takers, and a vehicle of prayer because without it prayers are not able to reach the traditional Batak spirit world (not that anybody anymore will confess to believing in that traditional spirit world because it carries an anti-Christian stigma). Was that it, then? Was that the sum of the intangible heritage?

To my mind, there was a sad and deep irony in the celebration of the intangible heritage of ulos because precisely that component has gone extinct. I still wonder if the ‘intangible’ part of ulos was broached in any way on the 17th of October? My concern is that very little is known anymore about the ‘intangible’ part of ulos. If the organizers and those present wanted to celebrate this facet of ulos, would the day not have looked different? I mean this in a literal sense. It looks like the day was based on the status quo of tangible ulos in current times.

From the pictures I saw, most of the textiles worn were of the sadum design type. The sadum is not originally a Toba Batak ulos; it originates from Angkola. It made inroads slowly during the 20th century, first into Silindung, then the rest of Toba, then Simalungun and Karo. Initially it fell outside adat but only towards the end of the last century gradually became accepted, or at least no longer banned, as an adat textile. Now it has become the dominant ulos design eclipsing almost all others (with the occasional exception of the Ragi Hotang, Ragidup and Pinunsaan and the suji Batak). How ironic that people were using precisely this Angkola textile design to celebrate the intangible weaving heritage of the Toba! An unwitting symptom of the extinction of the intangible heritage of the Toba, and not a way to encourage its perpetuation.

Second, I saw that the majority of the ulos being worn had been woven on ATBM (semi-mechanized) looms and not the traditional backstrap loom. They were embellished with synthetic yarns that have nothing to do with the local textile heritage, but are symptomatic of relatively recent external influence. In my experience, intangible ulos heritage is expressed primarily in the traditional way Batak textiles are made on backstrap looms and not just in how they are used in ritual. Rules of design and technique (intangible ulos) result in a physical outing (tangible ulos) of traditional Batak thinking or worldview (intangible heritage). Precisely this has disappeared in ulos production for the market. There are several reasons for this. One is that the Church has discouraged the traditional Batak worldview. Another is that for a long time now, the ulos market has not supported the best work that a weaver can make at the slow tempo required to produce high quality. Now weavers just produce quickly, quickly. They have to compete with the faster production on semi-mechanical looms, and that means that they will always fail. They will always have a sense of being deficient because their work is slower and their income less than that of the factory owner and workers. It has also got to the stage that the quality of their work is also lower.

The longest ulos from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
I wondered if any component of the celebrations had been designed to encourage the best and traditional work of weavers? Were any weavings commissioned because of their traditional intangible content? I doubt it because that is precisely what has been lost. The ‘longest ulos’ that was celebrated on that day was made on a semi-mechanized loom. Are there any Batak left who remember that very long ulos used to be made on backstrap looms to use during the horja bius, the great annual rite celebrating the continuity of life?

Photo from FB
Third, there was a fashion show of textiles made from so-called ‘ulos’ but from all appearances these had also been made on ATBM looms. Fashionalization is a function of global economic forces that incorporate the indigenous but leave it little or no room to function on its own terms. I perceive fashion production using ulos cloth to be antithetical to the celebration of intangible heritage. Fashion may celebrate the ‘appearance’ of ulos, celebrate two-dimensional design to the exclusion of the multi-dimensional intangible component. Fashion ulos are shown to demonstrate that the Batak have entered the realm of so-called ‘modernity’. Ironic again that people wish to demonstrate that they are modern, when in fact ‘modernity’ is all that they have. Their ancient history of intangible heritage has been lost. Fashion moves the ulos tradition even further away from the great intangible heritage of the past.

I wonder if ulos can be revived. It will be an anachronism if it is revived, a reference to the world of the Batak of the past. I believe there is value in such revival because I notice that many Batak people are hungry and thirsty for knowledge about their heritage. It will yield a fuller understanding of their identity. The days of the past will never return, but a weaving tradition can still be passed down in a treasured, artistic, limited form. Does it still exist anywhere in its intangible form? Because revival of the ulos tradition depends on the accessibility of this intangible knowledge. Intangible knowledge is the inspirational source of the tangible cloth. Did intangible Batak heritage benefit from National Ulos Day? Did backstrap weavers benefit?

I would like to issue a challenge to the organizers of National Batak Ulos Day. I challenge you to harness the energy and the enthusiasm of this ulos celebration in future years to benefit Batak weavers. I challenge you to investigate the ‘intangible character’ of Batak ulos (beyond the function of the cloth) and then make it known for posterity; celebrate it for your children and grandchildren so that future generations may also have access to it. What point is there in celebrating intangible heritage if that heritage is extinct? What exactly was being celebrated on 17 October? Was it perhaps just Batak ethnic pride?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Penghargaan dari Kembidkbud - hari kedua

Foto by Tatan Daniel
The second day of the Cultural Award ceremony put on by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture built up to the crowning evening when the Minister, Dr. Anies Baswedan, was in attendance. Mid-afternoon we were brought by bus to the Theater Building in Taman Ismail Marzuki where we learned how all sixty (or so) of us were to go on and off stage. At that point some of our ranks were just beginning to put together a performance. After all there were musicians and dancers and writers among the awardees.

The final event was pulled off flawlessly. We all gasped when we realized that a full orchestra would accompany the evening. Changing slide images from the archipelago formed the backdrop. Classical was interwoven with ethnic by young and old from the entire archipelago. The speech by the Minister was of the gentle and thoughtful kind, a carefully aimed message to encourage the audience to continue to work for their cultural traditions. He gave each of the awardees a golden pin and then it was over.

Breakfast with Ibu Chitra and another award winner

The next morning I had the opportunity to discuss the ceremony with the coordinator of all of the events, ibu Dyah Chitraria Liestyati. This beautiful, personable, intelligent and kind person was able to give us her full attention during breakfast. On the face of things, the award ceremony looked like it had been a risk. The awardees had had only a few hours to put together an act. On the other hand, in this land of creative spontaneity, always very much rooted in ‘the moment’, perhaps only such an un-choreographed performance could truly reveal the genius of the performers. In that sense, it had been the smallest possible risk!

They were geniuses, every one of them. I was mesmerized by their performance. Perhaps it was the same for all of us in the audience: the awareness as the evening progressed that we were being privy to something precious if not unprecedented. We were seeing the essence of the Indonesian arts. This was no ‘canned’ performance being dished up. This was genius being given a brief stage, the whole of Nusantara working together, building on each other’s strengths, complementing each other. This was diversity unified into a single act. Many of the performers were elderly. Their movements were testament to their lives having been steeped in the practices. It seemed less that they were ‘performing’ and more that they had briefly assumed a stage where they could be who they were as artists, as cultural leaders working together. What an assembly! Where else would one be privy to the best of the best from the entire archipelago?  Such grace. Such depth of spirit. A singular moment: unexpected, powerful, impossible to plan. It ‘came together’ like a ritual. I had witnessed a miracle.

What was this? Was this the privilege of being witness to the end of the line? Or did this ceremony mark maintenance and revival, a changing of the tide? Our hostess at breakfast, ibu Chitra, the event coordinator, spoke of her excitement when she first read about the talents of the people who had been selected to receive this year’s cultural award and her deep wish to allow them to show their talents. She also spoke of the challenge facing the government in its commitment to encourage this genius, to facilitate its transfer. Two young people among the awardees included a very small boy with an indescribable singing talent and a young girl who lived to write. To me they represented hope for the future, that everything is still possible.
The Director General, Kacung Marijan and ibu Chitra
The award ceremony did me a lot of good. Prior to the two days of festivities I had been assailed by fears that it might consist of stuffed shirts and politics. I have been deeply saddened during this visit to Indonesia to learn about poverty-related suicides in Batak villages, by the haze hanging over Sumatra from burning forests, by the photographs of animals that have become the victims of this habitat destruction, of knowing that cultural traditions suffer just as much. There have been moments when my hope has sunk so low that going into an award ceremony felt like a strange anachronistic act, and more like subjecting myself to salt in the wound of helplessness than celebration. How could I be given an award for struggling to support a weaving tradition on the brink of extinction? The award ceremony re-kindled my love for Indonesian culture and it gave me hope as did the opportunity to speak to the Director General of the culture department, Mr. Kacung Marijan, and the event coordinator, Ibu Chitra, afterwards, whereupon I discovered their genius and sincerity. They also represent the best elements of Indonesian culture. May their goodness, energy and wisdom similarly prevail and be passed on.