Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The 'Back to the Villages' Projects contributed to Textile Revival

Weavers inspect an old textile that I purchased in an antique store
and brought to them. They have no more templates like these in the villages.
Recently the knowledgeable textile collector, Lewa Pardomuan, listed several people in Indonesia engaged in textile revival. My name, together with that of MJA Nashir, was not on his list, but I would argue that it should be. To date, we have not produced Batak textiles or new designs. However, I believe we have taken important steps to revitalize the tradition found in the region around Lake Toba.

To my mind, the revitalization of indigenous textile traditions has to do with weavers. Not designers in the popular sense of the word. And not fashion.

Weavers constructed all of the weaving traditions in Indonesia. Their collective results have built up over the course of centuries. Indonesia's weaving traditions are the product of weaver creativity and skill in managing local resources and impinging external influences, each generation building upon the contributions of the last. If we assume, as I think we can, that weaving traditions were initially relatively simple and that they increased in complexity with time, this was the cultural product of village women with artistic and other skills. (We are now undeniably witnessing a phase in which the weaving arts are shrinking in complexity and artistry, some disappearing altogether, others threatened with extinction.) The women in the villages are no longer building on the past; they have lost (access to) most of the knowledge and skill that was built up over centuries. Revival, to my mind, would consist of re-building their capacities.

Some of the examples of revival on Lewa Pardomuan's list are the work of designers who have submitted tasks to weavers. this usually relates to fashion developments that reference indigenous traditions. Can this be called 'revival'? I don't think so. I have nothing against designers; their work is exciting and important. But revival of indigenous cloth through the work of designers? Unlikely. Theirs is business that competes by referencing indigenous skill, resources and design. If the capital or the initiative collapses, so does the 'revival' because it is dependent. It is not rooted in the culture It is not rooted in the weavers; they just work for the designer.

To my mind, revival has to do with inspiring the spirit, knowledge and know-how of weavers. The knowledge that I am referring to relates to being keepers of technical and design heritage. UNESCO called this intangible heritage. Know-how relates to their skill in translating that knowledge into tangible products. The revival of textile tradition has to do with expanding the capacities of the hands of the weavers, as well as what is between their ears and in their hearts. The tangible is but a momentary expression of the weaver's participation in her intellectual/spiritual/technical universe. Unless the weavers are nurtured (physically/spiritually/mentally), a textile tradition cannot be revived. Beautiful revival textiles only emerge when weavers are inspired, talented, practised and well taught, when they believe in themselves and their craft capacities; otherwise they will not spend their resources on creating a cloth to the very best of their abilities.

In addition, they need the room to make a beautiful textilee. By 'room', I mean enough time and enough financial security. Furthermore, they need templates so that they can test their skills against those of their ancestors. Revival cannot be built on exhausted wavers who are underpaid by the market and whose families are suffering from the effects of poverty. When the weavers are reduced to labourers (as is usually the case when they work for designers), they become practitioners of a limited set of techniques, working repetitively, boringly, for an insufficient wage. Reviving their weaving heritage may be the last thing on their minds. When they are focused on meeting the design requirements set by someone else, they are not reviving their weaving tradition; they are behaving as paid labourers. They are in a dependent position. Revival is about giving the weavers the space to express their own abundant creativity.

My 'Back to the Villages' projects have entailed giving to weavers and not asking anything of them,  reversing the flow in a world in which weavers, quite simply, are exploited. The 'Back to the Villages' team has returned to the weavers their woven heritage in print form (Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia, a book documenting their repertory) to give them access which they otherwise would not have because there are no museums that cater to them and because the beautiful old templates have disappeared out of the villages. Because my book, Legacy in cloth, was sumptuously produced, it kindled a sense of pride in the weavers for their own tradition. Our film, Rangsa ni Tonun, also encouraged a sense of pride. The film reminded them that in the Batak past, when the culture wa still vigorous, weavers were believed to be doing the work of the goddess, Si Boru Hasagian. Their work was honoured and revered. In addition, the actors in our film, just ordinary village weavers, felt intensely proud to have been transformed into 'movie stars' showing their weaving talents to the world.

I believe that the 'Back to the Villages' expeditions executed by MJA Nashir and myself have contributed significantly to raising awareness of the fact that the Batak weaving tradition is in sharp decline and now on the verge of total collapse -- and that this should not be allowed to happen. Now there are several people on the front lines talking about, and trying their hand at reviving the Batak textile tradition.

So far, however, all of this attention has not ameliorated the plight of Batak weavers. With the 'loss of ulos' having turned into a hot issue, people are still concerned about the disappearance of the cloth. Not many seem to have thought about how the plight of the weavers is connected to the decline in the textile tradition. The village tradition continues to decline because weavers are not receiving enough for their work and because young women are not interested in taking up the trade. Why would they want to take up a life of grinding poverty based on extremely hard work?

A ceremony last year intended to highlight the 'intangible' heritage instead highlighted only the tangible heritage. The weaver was left out. She has not yet been sufficiently celebrated despite being the source of the cloth that all claim to love and to want to preserve. Is this because, although she is the descendant of the mythical goddess of weaving, she is practically invisible on the lowest rung of the social ladder?

Everywhere I go, I encourage political leaders to give to the weavers what they need not just to survive, but to thrive:

Designate weaver villages in ways that tourists can find the weavers

Celebrate weavers by recognizing that they are cultural heroes.

Distribute pamphlets about weaver traditions.

Promote the makers of the cloths as artists instead of leaving them anonymous.

Give the weaver centre stage and not just the designer or the politician who is using her skills to show that he/she is a cultural promoter.

Indonesia is a country in which attention is paid upwards to the person of status. Revival of the textile tradition means reversing this flow -- or recognizing that the weaver, humble and poor as she is, is nevertheless a cultural hero and needs to be celebrated as such.

This, Lewa, is what my work has been designed to do. That is why we call my projects "Back to the Villages": we want the flow of respect and resources to go back to the villages where cultural items such as ulos are produced. The weavers have been squeezed financially and socially and it shows in their products. If we want textile revival, we need cultural revival that puts weavers back in touch with the work of their ancestors and inspires the youth to want to be bearers of their traditions.

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