Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Decolonizing Fashion -- and the Bulang

I wrote a blog for our Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion and felt it fair to share it here as well, since my recent ideas have been so strongly informed by the Weaving Centre in North Sumatra.

Not too long ago, I attended the State of Fashion exhibition in Arnhem (June - July 2018).  It was a magnificent exhibition, well worth the more than 12 hours that I spent there in total. As someone who has considered the decolonization of fashion from an anthropological viewpoint[i], the exhibition gave me important new insights into what decolonizing can and should mean. It really is a revolutionary concept. I learned that much of thought-shaking significance has transpired since I wrote about what amounts to the racism of Western Fashion -- but I also perceived that the State of Fashion still needs to undergo more decolonizing to become whole.

Let's face it. The West is NOT superior. It is the Big Bad Wolf. The West is the undisputed leader in destroying our beautiful-but-abused Planet Earth. The conceit that we in the West have managed to uphold as descendants of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is surely due for eternal rest, but it is still ubiquitously alive and, unfortunately, kicking. Fashion is our proof. The West had it, but the rest did not, according to conventional wisdom. Now that the rest seems to be having it too, we lull ourselves with the happy delusion that the world has become a more fair place and that 'they' have caught up. In reality, this global fashion system demonstrates that the tentacles of our destructive, now global, economic system have reached the farthest corners of the globe. It is exploiting the universal human need for clothing and body decoration to reproduce itself everywhere like a virus. The process is complex and can inspire creative anti-fashion, contra-fashion, alternate fashion and subversive fashion responses as people tangle with its dominance, but it also true that local indigenous systems of clothing dynamics are wiped out quietly in its path and claim no headlines as they go. 

At the State of Fashion event, people who work critically within the fashion system scrutinized it thoroughly and unapologetically. Fashion has failed, was their message: it is hugely wasteful, the most destructive industry after oil and gas; it serves to make the rich richer on a massive scale; it ruthlessly denies local creativity; it alienates us all by failing to take account of our emotional needs; it heartlessly tells us that we are lacking unless we buy in, literally; it straightjackets us into filling expectations about gendered ways of being; it refuses to keep abreast of developments that could reduce our ecological footprint; it uses fibres that destroy our rainforests and water; pesticides and herbicides that ruin our soils, dyes that turn our rivers black; labour practices that reduce makers to slaves. Buying in is an agonizing form of global suicide. This is not the fashion that we want!  We are seduced and railroaded into buying and wearing what we abhor in principle.

So, what is the fashion that we want? Can do we achieve it again? (Yes, it was once available.) What are the changes needed? How do we go about achieving those changes? What kinds of new systems and structures do we need to create?

The State of Fashion shone its light on a plethora of strategies currently being explored: new dyes, fibres, construction techniques. New systems of making, new ways to value and not waste, new ways to recycle and re-use. It encouraged conscious reflection on what fashion is and what it should do for us, and on the thought systems incorporated in the making of fashion. It was deep, thorough and thoughtful and it should be required fare for all. May the exhibition travel!

What I saw in the exhibition and its programs was a gratifying awareness of humanity. It was not Us vs them (the West vs the rest, Those with Fashion vs those without). It was about constructing a new, global fashion morality; about respect for our deepest needs and longings as creative, gendered, caring, diverse humans; about fairness to all involved in fashion production, and also consumers and our dear Mother Earth. It passionately and earnestly conveyed the imperative of breaking free of the straightjacket into which the global Fashion system has strapped us and the boundless potential that revised clothing production holds for creating goodness in the world.

For all its rightness, however, it failed to integrate the fundamental awareness that fashion is NOT and has NEVER BEEN exclusively Western. It focused on the reformation of the Global Fashion System. Yes! Necessary! Kudos! But it did that almost exclusively, and in so doing, it continued to walk on the same fundament on which the Western Fashion System was constructed in the first place.  Its recognition that there are other fashion systems was weak. They have always been there -- although now largely forgotten and ignored, and worse yet, undermined and destroyed by that obese, conceited Western variant. Among those desecrated systems are examples of what is being sought in the West: sustainable systems that meet local needs, that don't harm the earth, that respond to local creativity, that are not exploitative, that are meaningful, that do good for all involved. They were always overlooked in Fashion Studies. Now they are still being overlooked in critical fashion analyses.

I attended a thoughtful session in which I tried to explain my own efforts to keep an exemplary system in a Southern nation alive. "Who can support me in this effort? How can I find support?" I asked. From this radical group, I expected and desperately wanted an endorsement, a recognition of the preciousness of my alternate, non-Western fashion and of its importance as an ideal or a model for our current industry, an answer to so many of our questions, a possibility of working together, of turning the non-Western example into a potential hero of a disastrous Western story, a way to build more fairness in the story of North and South. I was disappointed.   One answer that I received was, "Why not appeal to a church group for charity? They may be interested in craft." And that from a foremost leader in The Netherlands for changing the fashion industry. I should not have been surprised. I know that there is still no extant framework by which to assess my tale and my passionate quest to save an indigenous fashion system. I want collaboration, and recognition from industry and producers that what the Global Fashion System has almost completely decimated is still available to be supported and recognized as the ideal that they are looking for. Before it is too late, and the last jewels have been quashed in its merciless path.

There is plenty of urgent work to do. We, the Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion still need to impress upon teachers and practitioners how powerful and pervasive the colonial and racist notion of Fashion still is, that a new Fashion model must accommodate and respect cultural diversity and multiple historical narratives, that our Obese Global Fashion Mono-System must, in the future comprise diverse threads, diverse patterns, multiple layers, and various techniques; that it must be restorative of what it has crushed in its thoughtless, greedy pursuit of wealth. For me, that would be 'the new luxury'. It is there, and has been there all along, but it will not be seen or found unless fashion is decolonized.

[i]Niessen, Sandra. 2010. “Interpreting ‘Civilization’ through Dress” in the first international (10-volume) Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion  Vol 8: West Europe, Part I: Overview of Dress and Fashion in West Europe. Oxford: Berg Publishers, pp. 39-43. 

Niessen, Sandra. 2003. “Afterword:  Reorienting Fashion Theory”  In Niessen, S.A., A. Leshkowich, and C. Jones (eds.)  Re-orienting Fashion:  The Globalization of Asian Dress.  Oxford:  Berg Publishers.  pp. 243-266.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Proud of the Simalungun Weaving Centre

The Sitanggang women hosted their first tour. A great learning curve. A great result. Reason to be proud.

Visuals and Tangibles

When my friend in the UK, Pamela Cross, heard that Ompu Elza's textiles had been exhibited in China, her response was immediate: this needs to be made visible for all to see. "Hang the photograph of the bulang in the Chinese exhibition on the wall of the Weaving Centre," she suggested. It wasn't long before she had also taken it upon herself to commission a T-shirt to celebrate Ompu Elza's great achievement. At the end of July a group of textile enthusiasts would visit the Weaving Centre and the shirt could serve as a prominent visual reminder of this illustrious highlight at our Centre.

Mas MJA Nashir saw the brilliance in Pamela's idea. He has done all of our Pulang Kampung T-shirts and knows everything about the art of T-shirts; he had supported himself with the craft while he attended university. Living in Pekalongan, he had a team to help him. He went to work immediately. 


The process was fun and, in the end, also important. I shared the various stages of the design with Pamela and her excitement grew. I told Lasma that the T-shirt was in the works and anticipation in the village also mounted. Anticipation, I was learning, was an important part of the tour and we were having it simultaneously in North Sumatra, Java, England and The Netherlands. None of us could wait to see Ompu Elza's face when she laid eyes on Nashir's product. 

At the last minute there was some doubt as to whether the shirts would arrive on time. The T-shirt had become an emblem of honour. It would be the talk of the town. I could not countenance having to disappoint everyone with an announcement that we hadn't been able to get the shirts to the village on time. Gulp. Luckily our friend Arjuna Bakkara was heading home from Jakarta on Friday evening. Enough of the shirts were done on Thursday evening for Nashir to package them up and send them on the bus to Jakarta that night. Arjuna picked them up, flew them to Medan and then bussed them to Pematang Siantar where Lasma and her husband picked them up on Saturday, with one day to spare before the tour. Such relief!  For a mere item of clothing? No, this was not just a T-shirt; this shirt contained love, admiration, pride, beauty, friendship, our shared dreams coming true.

I asked Lasma to immortalize Ompu Elza with her T-shirt by taking a photograph of le moment supreme and here is the result. Lasma included a quote from Ompu Elza: "If Sandra is proud of my textile in China, I am twice as proud wearing this T-shirt". Her smile had never been wider. Her shirt is a source of constant joy and celebration for her, an historical landmark. Words could never have done what these shirts do.

Nashir confessed that he had worn his everyday since he had taken it off the press. He was not exempt from the excitement. Not having one in Europe, I wore one of Nashir's T-shirts from the Pulang Kampung III journey, on the day that the tour visited the Weaving Centre. These shirts retain their meaning. It made me feel like a part of everything.

The T-shirts have given me pause to ponder Ompu Elza's bulang, that other material item at the Weaving Centre that is having enormous impact. I have known Ompu Elza for as long as I have known Lasma. She is quiet, modest, always friendly, a bit shy. For eight years our relationship consisted of little more than sweet greetings and farewells with smiles in between. No real content.

Until she sat down in her loom. That is when I finally met Lasma's mother. I saw someone of stature emerge. I saw her peaceful, graceful spirit allowing her to resolve every tangle in her yarn and patiently ensure that every gesture in her loom was accurate. I saw textiles grow under her hands that had perfectly straight selvedge edges, a sign of balance and a lot of experience. I saw focus and determination. Ompu Elza's textiles were even and calm. A weaver weaves her own personality. I saw her authority and expertise. I hadn't known what to make of this woman who one day announced her intention to start weaving again. I had had no expectations but my admiration and respect grew every single day.

I spent long hours with Ompu Elza as she wove. Sometimes I had a camera in my hand and sometimes a notebook and pen. Mostly I just sat and observed as the sun slowly made its way across the sky. Sometimes I asked questions. She answered patiently, often putting down her sword to give me her full attention.  She repeated her answers to make sure that I had understood and that her answer was sufficient and complete. I saw that same diligence as when she wove and I began to wonder whether her character had been shaped by the hours she had spent in her loom. "I am the same way in the fields," she said. "I don't like to hurry, don't like to work by the clock. I don't take breaks. I like to proceed steadily, in a focused way, slowly and very surely. That's just the way I am." This gave me the first inkling that I was in the presence of a master. She was not a weaver who just slammed in the weft to get a cloth ready for market; she was someone who attended to details and for whom the final product was her foremost priority.

One day while she was working on her second textile, she looked up from what she was doing, and I saw another facet of her personality emerge. "Mantap," she said. "Mantap". (Super!) "I didn't think I could still do this!" She was expressing amazement at herself. "I haven't woven for so long and I didn't know if I could still remember this. Super!" Her face was wreathed in smiles and for a moment she was exuberant. All of us sitting around her, her children and I, laughed with her infectious energy. Later she told me how much she liked the combination of weaving in the loom and working as a farmer in the fields. "Weaving forces me to think," she said. "It keeps my brain sharp. Working in the fields allows me to move and sweat. Then I feel better physically. You don't mind if I don't weave everyday?" "Of course not, I said. It is up to you how you organize your time! I am happy that you would like to weave for me, but when and how much is entirely your own choice." "Then I choose for this balance, back and forth between the fields and the loom, depending on how I feel, my other duties, and the weather," said Ompu Elza. This made me so happy. This is what handicraft should be, I thought. This is what weaving must have been before the market became overbearing. 

Often, as I sat beside her I felt quite emotional, overwhelmed by the beauty of her character, so willing, so kind, so uncomplicated, so gentle, so strong. I saw a deep beauty in this woman that I had known for 8 years, but never met until I saw her in her loom. When I saw the photograph that Lasma sent of her wearing her bulang while weaving a bulang while sporting her bulang T-shirt, I teased by calling her Ompu Bulang. That, in my heart of hearts, is truly how I think of her. She did not just weave yarn with her skilled and careful hands, she wove her personality and she wove our relationship. My hours beside her loom are precious to me as I recall them here in The Netherlands and miss the beautiful ambiance of my Weaving Centre. I may have built it, but she is creating it.

Ompu Elza is receiving the honour she deserves. Here she stands with her
beautiful daughters and her little grandson at her sides, together with tour leader, Mary Connors.

How important is something tangible; how important is making a product. Perhaps that is what the English idiom: "having something to show for oneself" means. The culture in the material. The loom gives Ompu Elza the opportunity to create herself. I wonder if it is just I who thinks of her as whole when weaving is part of her life? I wonder if that is how she thinks of herself? One thing is clear. Weaving is not drudgery to her when she has the freedom to do it when and how and where she wants. She is the weaver to whom I absolutely must give free rein and impose no constraints whatsoever. This genius deserves all the room she can get.

This brilliance is what Pamela's/Mas Nashir's T-shirt announces.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Tribute to a Loom-maker

Weaving is women's work. This is certain. Weavings are also a community product. This is also certain. It is easy to forget that weaving can't happen unless there are men who make the looms. And this means that there have to be community forests where wood can be fetched. There need to be living, healthy ecosystems, both human and natural.

Here I celebrate a modest and quiet loom-maker, Pak Sandi Damanik. He is self-taught and he does all the right things. He works closely with the weavers in the gentlest, kindest, most non-intrusive way. He is so happy to do it right. He is excited by his cultural heritage and wants to perpetuate it. He has his knowledge from his ancestors and his village. He is a perfect loom-maker.

I feel so lucky that Lasma married this dear man. What would we do without him?

Absolutely imperative to celebrate him!

And thank you to mas MJA Nashir for designing this poster!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Celebrate the Weavers!

Batak weavers have been used and abused for a long time. Exploitation is both unjustifiable and unconscionable, but it is more the rule than the exception. The consequences are severe. One is that children refuse to learn the art (who wants a life of drudgery?) and  weavers suffer from very low status and wounded pride.

At the Simalungun Weaving Centre, we want to change that. We want our weavers to have both name and profile so that they feel proud and so that they can operate independently (rather than through middlemen/workshop owners/politicians/tour operators). This is why mas MJA Nashir and I make "profile sheets" for the weavers we know. 

We advocate that those interested in saving the weaving arts follow suit. It is a relatively simple and effective remedy. That so far our advice has met with no success is a symptom of the current obsession with marketing and the consumer/tourist rather than the needs of the weavers.

Alas, the market is important but it will not save the weaving tradition. To the contrary! The market exposes weavers to vicissitudes over which they have no control and has even generated the current crisis. No, the powers that be must invest in the weavers, show them respect and take steps to bolster their pride. Treat them like culture heroes.

July 2018

At the end of July, we will receive a tour at the Simalungun Weaving Centre. Lasma and her family are taking it on with great anticipation. I have been doing what I can from Europe, including this letter to the tour participants that I would like to share more widely. I have not blogged for a long time. I lived in the village for 4 months at the beginning of 2018 and wanted to keep a low profile while I worked quietly. Now I am ready to 'come out', at least a little bit. This letter provides a bit of an overview of what has transpired.

Dear Textile Tour Members

Welcome to the Simalungun Weaving Centre!

I cannot be with you today, alas, but I would like to share some background information about the Centre by way of this letter. 

I started my anthropological career when I did my first 'fieldwork' in the area of Lake Toba in 1979. Since that first visit, I have seen the Batak weaving tradition decline drastically. In 2010 I handed out copies of my book, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to the weavers depicted on its pages so that they would have access to documentation of their own tradition. The transformative journey turned me into a textile activist. I realized that the weaving tradition would die out unless the weavers are encouraged and filled with pride for their work -- a tall order when they do not receive a living wage.

In 2012 I met Lasma Sitanggang, 18 years old at the time. She and I were both anxious to do something for her ailing culture and to reduce poverty, so we joined forces and developed a relationship of mutualism. We are both more effective when we work together!  Eventually I purchased the land where the Weaving Centre is located and built the house. Lasma and her husband look after it and develop its role in the village. The world is in deep crisis. Lasma and I both want to be part of the solution and not the problem. I invest the little that I have directly in the village, rather than in big business, and try to pass on my knowledge of the Batak weaving arts while I am still able. Lasma and her family are my guides and connection to the village.

I chose Lasma's village because it needs a boost, and also because it was once the centre of production of the headcloth called 'bulang'. I knew that if the bulang tradition was not revitalized quickly, it would be lost forever. Older women who know how to make it all stopped weaving when the bottom fell out of their market 15 years ago. They are now traumatized and distrustful. It is hard to get them to weave again. Lasma's mother was the first to dare to take up the loom again and she is enjoying it! Her daughters are learning from her. We hope that others will follow suit. Your tour may help convince them that weaving is appreciated and can be viable. 

We are still at an early experimental stage. I bring photographs of old museum bulang to the village, and import natural-dyed yarn from Java, Bali and Savu (we don't yet produce it ourselves). Finding the right yarn is an enormous challenge. We discuss everything at length and try to decipher the best way to proceed. Luckily our senior weaver, Lasma's mother, Ompu Elza, is patient and helpful. Each textile she makes is slightly different. Our goal is to develop beautiful artworks of the highest quality for a market that will truly sustain the weavers. Achieving that kind of quality and market will take time. In the meantime, I pay the weavers a living wage for every bulang they make and we document the specifics of each textile carefully. We are building a study collection, a record of our experiments.

Ompu Elza at her loom
Our logo is 'weaving for wellbeing'. Our dream is to create a place where weavers have the latitude to express their creativity and feel respected and happy. Lasma and her husband, Ober, have taken a course on organic farming and will hold an organic garden workshop here at the centre in September for fellow villagers. Eventually our dyes will be organically grown.

When I come back at the end of the 2018, we plan to hold a workshop together with weavers from other regions so that we can share and explore supplementary warp techniques. This is an important step for producing a bulang of the very highest quality. 

I hope you enjoy our House of Simalungun Weaving Culture. We are small and at the very beginning of what we hope will be a long and fruitful journey that benefits the whole village. Your visit is filling everyone with energy and opening their eyes to new possibilities. I believe in the importance of "holding hands" between North and South for the betterment of us all. 

Thank you for joining us!

Great Joy at the Simalungun Weaving Centre

Enter Sandra Sardjono. When she finished her PhD in 2017, she was quickly engaged by the China National Silk Museum to help with the preparations for their exhibition entitled,  'A World of Looms: Weaving Technology and Textile Arts in China and Beyond'. When she requested a Simalungun loom for the exhibition I said 'yes' on principle, little imagining the enormity of that to which I had committed myself. 

There is a long and convoluted story to be told here.  Suffice it to say that the Simalungun Weaving Centre filled the museum request. It included the loom made by Pak Sandi, Lasma's husband, and a half-woven bulang textile made by Ompu Elza, Lasma's mother, in addition to a completed bulang for visitor enjoyment.  We sent everything off, on time, to China where it passed inspection and was mounted in the exhibition. To my endless additional delight, the museum used a photograph of Ompu Elza's textile to grace the invitation to the event. 

Sandra sent me the images from China. By this time I was back in The Netherlands and I forwarded them to the Weaving Centre beside Lake Toba. 

Enter Agustina Sitanggang, Ompu Elza's third daughter. She responded by telling me that Ompu Elza had been so touched that the tears rolled down her cheeks. Agus had to wipe away her own tears as she wrote, and so did I when I received her words. The whole family was moved and so proud of Ompu Elza. Everyone was moved to tears. Ompu Elza is a dedicated, hard-working, modest and undemanding person with low expectations of life, who has dedicated her adult years to her   family. "This is the first time that I
have felt valued for my work," she said. She savoured a feeling that she had never known before and from which she will be able to derive sustenance for the rest of her life.

Enter Pamela Cross, my friend and loyal supporter of the Weaving Centre. She too was hugely moved. "Will it be possible to use the museum images on a t-shirt so that her accomplishment can be celebrated every time it is seen and worn?" 

Enter Mas MJA Nashir, photographer/poet/filmer/writer, dedicated to the cultures of his beautiful archipelago. He designed and printed the t-shirts in Pekalongan, with Pamela's support.  Tonight they will be sent off to North Sumatra.

Ompu Elza t-shirts on the assembly-line

I wish I could be there to see Ompu Elza's delight when she sees them and pulls one on.

It takes a community to nurture a weaving tradition, a dedicated, loving, inventive, loyal community.