Wednesday, December 08, 2021

How the spirit of weaving returned to its body

Agus really wanted to go to a national university and she thought that would please her parents. They had often gone on about how amazing it would be if one of their children were to obtain a degree from a national university and they were willing to make huge sacrifices, such as selling their only water buffalo, to make that happen. But in the meantime, they no longer had a water buffalo. The hard times they were in were hard indeed. Agus took the entrance exams and managed to win a full tuition scholarship. She was over the moon and knew her parents would be as well. She had really done her best, gone to a neighbouring city for the first time on her own, and focused intensely on the exam. She knew it was her one and only chance and she succeeded! Back in the village she told her mother about her achievement and her mother burst into tears. Agus assumed that the tears reflected how deeply moved her mother was by Agus’s achievement, but she was wrong. Her mother lashed out in anger. “Why would you do this when we are not able to pay for your needs in the city?” she asked Agus. “I am so ashamed.” 

 I pondered what Agus told me. Her mother must have been suffering very deep regret at not being able to facilitate her daughter's education.
Agus managed to overcome the situation by finding a sponsor who saw her through to the end of her degree. Recently she has been in a celebratory mood because she has graduated. She now holds a Bachelor of Arts from a national university and has letters beside her name. She has every reason to feel very, very proud. It was her indomitable courage that saw her through. She received her degree with self-confidence, pride and resolve. But I had a niggling concern. How would her mother be feeling given that someone else had supported her daughter? “Does your mother feel a little ambivalent toward the sponsor?” I asked. 

There is no doubt that Ompu Elza also felt proud. Agus dressed her in the graduation toga and took a photograph of her standing solemnly in front of the University, holding Agus’s graduation diploma. But was there also a tinge of sadness, regret, perhaps even a touch of resentment that she had not been the one to enable her daughter’s achievement? I knew Agus well enough that I could ask that question; I wanted to confide my concern about her Mom. I knew what my feelings would have been in her place.


“I will tell you what my mother said,” Agus answered in a decided way. “She said, ‘The spirit of weaving has come back.’”  I had not expected this answer. What did weaving have to do with Agus’s accomplishment? Agus explained. “Mother’s life was weaving. She started when she was very young and she did it every day. Her spirit and the spirit of weaving were one and the same. But then the spirit of weaving left her.” Agus knew precisely when. It was about twenty years ago, when economic circumstances forced her Mom to stop weaving, leaving her heartbroken. Try as she might, she was no longer able to meet her family’s needs by selling the products of her loom. That was how the spirit of weaving left her and how she withdrew from it. 


“A lost spirit will return when a body misses it and new sprouts will grow,” Agus explained to me.
I had to digest this. It appeared that Agus’s mother attributed Agus’s success (and thus her own good fortune) to the spirit of weaving. “Is it because she has started to weave again that she credits the spirit of weaving for your achievement?” I asked Agus. But Agus didn't know how to deal with my question. I think that the way I had framed it just didn’t make any sense across our cultural difference. She answered with a parable. 
“We plant a root crop (ubi) and the roots sprout new shoots. We can’t tell what the harvest will be because the roots are covered with earth. They can be covered up for a long time. Inang [the sponsor] came and tidied up the earth around the plants, cared for them.  And then there appeared to be new shoots. They represent hope.”


Ompu Elza at her loom. She returned
to it in 2015 - before the spirit returned.

But what made the spirit of weaving return?” I persisted.  “We don’t know whether the spirit of weaving attracted the sponsor, or whether the sponsor attracted the spirit,” Agus answered simply. The very question seemed irrelevant. “The point is, it returned, and it hadn’t been there for some twenty years. When the sponsor came to clean up around the plants, apparently there were still some shoots; they were still alive. Hope was still growing in the ground.” 


This story has kept me in its grip. It reveals so much. In the first place, about gratitude. Agus does what she does, to the best of her ability; so does her whole family, including her mother. I, as 'the sponsor', did what I did. We are only human and we proceed as we proceed. For Agus's mother, it is the spirit that prevails and bestows us with success, if it is to be ours. For us there is but one option: to feel gratitude when it bestows. That's when we experience good fortune. ‘Rejeki’ comes from a higher hand. The spirit prevails. Gratitude is built into such a stance. It is central to life,; it is not just a feeling.
Agus’s story told me, too, that Agus’s mother has felt very engaged indeed in her daughter's
university career and in that pinnacle: her graduation.  Agus’s success had awakened her Mother's weaving spirit. It had been buried there, under the surface all that time, capable of sprouting new shoots. This told me how deep Ompu Elza’s pain had been when she was forced to put down her loom, and just how profound the antidote of her daughter’s graduation had been. It restored pride, well-being, a sense of being fortunate. 

Agus with her father not long before
he passed away

All of this confirmed that the spirit of weaving is sweet and good.  It is a source of blessings, ability, pride, self-respect. It truly is a core of Ompu Elza’s being; how deeply lived, the act of weaving can be: positivity and hope, like the shoots of new life, the essence of life.
And I learned about how my Simalungun family lives reciprocally with spirit. I learned about their two-way engagement with the spirit world. Like tending plants. We tend them and they tend us in return. Like the line in a Batak prayer about nurturing rice so that it can nurture us (Eme na hupagodang; Eme na pagodang ahu). When Ompu Elza wove, she was nurturing her weaving spirit. And when she was forced to stop weaving, she lost the spirit that was nurturing her existence. 


Sometimes reality seems to take a strange twist. Then it becomes a challenge to locate the truth. This time, however, I think it is pretty clear where it lies. And that egg? Is it on my face? I choose to be lenient; this is just the way learning in a different culture proceeds: lots of twists, lots of egg, triangulation and hopefully learning. Let me explain:


Yesterday I shared with Agus’s elder sister, Lasma, how proud her mother had been at Agus’s graduation and I mentioned that Ompu Elza had used the expression ‘roh tenun’. I wanted to get Lasma’s take on her mother’s ‘weaving spirit’. I also wanted to know what the Simalungun word would be for that spirit that had returned to the body. 


Lasma told me that ‘roh tonun’ is said when someone completes a difficult task that has taken a lot of time, something like ‘congratulations’ but then with more weight. I didn’t get it. Why the word ‘tonun’ (Simalungun for weaving) and why ‘roh’ (spirit)? 

It turns out that some confusion hinged on the word ‘roh’, meaning spirit in Indonesian but meaning ‘come’ in Simalungun. I didn’t know that, and had thought that the Toba word for come, ‘ro’ was used in Simalungun. Lasma explained that the expression ‘roh tonun’ means ‘weaving comes’. I confirmed that with my Simalungun dictionary – and will have to get back to Agus to see how she responds to this discovery. She had spoken to me of ‘roh tenun’, in Indonesian, ‘the spirit of weaving’. Could be that she was  mixed up between the Indonesian and the Simalungun? 


But I still didn’t understand why ‘roh tonun’ would be used to express congratulations for a really considerable accomplishment. Lasma had an insight into that as well. “This is an expression that is used by weavers,” she said. When a weaver finishes a textile, the other weavers in the group will say, “Roh tonun” to compliment her. She had learned this from her grandmother, Ompu Elza’s mother. The accomplishment is considerable because it is a long and complicated process to weave a cloth. The process of weaving is apparently used as a kind of measurement for a considerable accomplishment, hence it was used by Ompu Elza. 


Once again, however, this interpretation confirms the positive light in which weaving is held.  Whew. But I am still horrified by the extent to which Agus and I had been spinning a tale rather than accurately interpreting a Simalungun expression.

Postscript 2

I shared with Agus what Lasma had told me, and Agus said that it did not alter her story. She had been talking about 'jiwa tenun', the spirit of weaving, and she had obtained her information from her mother. She knew her story to be true. 

I guess I have to go back and share this news with Lasma. Or ask Agus to talk about it with Lasma.... Reality is not always clear. There can be different perspectives, different experiences, different interpretations. Interpretations can be dynamic and malleable. Culture is never cut and dried or singular or clear, and the process of digging to understand an interpretation can shed much light.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Stuck/Mentok vs. Memeyu Hayuning Bawana/Making the Beautiful World More Beautiful

Batik work by Mbak Nia and Mas Ismoyo

I had the honour of being asked to offer my opinion (to be a ‘penganggap’) at the Art and Dialog event put on by BSG (Babaran Segorogunung) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on November 27, 2021. I was excited by the goals of the event and I have long admired the people involved. As I perceived it, the Art and Dialog event was gently exploring a healing response to the current turmoil in which our world finds itself -- specifically to the heartache caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been very hard on Indonesian artists They have received little support, have no security, and don’t know what the future will hold. But I felt that the BSG strategy had much larger significance. Earlier in the same month COP26 concluded in Glasgow. I perceived it as a failure at a critical time – despite some positive groundwork having been laid. Both COVID and increasing global heating place Indonesia in a very difficult position. Indonesia is being thrown upon itself; economic dependence on the 
outside world is precarious. The tourism industry, uncertain anyway, was now no longer sustaining the artists at all. To where and what could they turn?


The important groundwork at COP 26 was precisely the ‘coming closer together’ of the parties which, during the course of the past century and longer, have been drastically separated by economic and political history. To solve global problems the globe has to come together. I perceived Art and Dialog as an opportunity to come together but not to just exchange sentences and opinions across formal and informal tables. It was about a more holistic coming together, and spectacularly, not about earnings, economic growth and social profile. It was about collaborative caring and authentic growth rooted in culture, history and being-in-the-world. You may be scratching your head and wondering why I am comparing a COP to Art and Dialog, but that is precisely the point. COP failed, and civil society has been thrown upon itself to forge solutions. A solution will not come from more of the same that got us into this existential pickle in the first place. It must come from the ground up. In fact, structurally, we are all in the position of the Indonesian artists. We have all lost our future security and we must all learn how to build it back wisely and sustainably. I read into the Art and Dialog event a profound response to the world’s problems


I was struck that mas Ismoyo’s intentions revolved around the dialogue between humans and nature as a wellspring for both art and life. I was also struck that mas Nashir, one of the designers of the exhibition, juxtaposed the artworks in such a way as to maximize wordless   ‘dialogues’ among the pieces, and between them and the surrounding nature; that he included the ‘art’ of a neighbouring farmer in the assembly. Key here is mas Ismoyo’s word: ‘sensibility’. The dialogues going on were multi-layered and multi-intersecting, explicitly involving all of the senses. Art and Dialog was not just about the art pieces and the discussion that we ‘opinion givers’ were to offer. It was about our relationship to the past, to culture, to our world, to what it means to be alive, to each other, and to our future. The event embodied and enacted openness to values and people and regions and ideas, to enhance our sensibilities to each other and to our surroundings. I experienced it as an antidote-in-action to the world’s problems, the product rooted importantly in the process.


I find the word ‘stuck’ evocative. It is so everyday, so earthy (wheels in mud); it so easily elicits memories, nothing highbrow. Yet it is being used to characterize our place in history. Authors David Graeber and David Wengrow make ‘stuckness’ a leitmotif of their already heralded new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). We in the North have slammed into the limits of our ability to imagine other ways of organizing our society. How could this have happened when history and all the cultures of the world constitute a parade of experiments in social organization? And why did we get stuck in one that is killing the earth? We are caught in a vortex that reduces every diverse kind of value to monetary wealth. Where money is generated as a result of debt -- which is how our economic system works -- destruction can only be the result. The great monetary wealth in our world is paralleled only by the great collapse of its living systems.


Stuckness is like being in a theatre when you want to escape a film and you can’t find the door; like being unable to awaken from a nightmare; like needing to slam on the breaks only to discover that they are failing. These are confrontations with tipping points, crucial moments of change that should be avoided. You end up in a landslide where you have lost the capacity to steer. We, in the North, are stuck. There have been about 30 COPs and still the CO2 emissions are going up. COVID-19 is mutating and still we have not got it together to sufficiently share the vaccine with the rest of the world.


I decided to centre my remarks at the Art and Dialog event on a graphic that depicts our nightmarish proximity to a critical tipping point. I badly wanted to share my perception of the profound importance of the Art and Dialog event from this perspective. After I spoke, mas Harjuno, among those assembled, expressed his confidence in the track record of humankind to find new paths and new ways. His comment was key. That is precisely what is needed, and  precisely what we, in the North, cannot find. Graeber and Wengrow also turned to the parade of other cultures to highlight pathways out of stuckness. This was the stock that I was placing in the Art and Dialog explorations. The event would not find a solution to world problems, but it was a forum to explore avenues to get unstuck. I put my faith in the intention of the event: the focus on relationships, on full-rounded, respectful dialogue, on including nature in everything. 


This is the nightmarish graphic showing the trajectory in which we are stuck:


This is a screenshot of a webinar slide shown by Dr. William Rees last May at a Canadian Club of Rome meeting, entitled “Too Clever by Half, but Not Smart Enough”. The slide shows the impact of fossil fuels on human population and economic growth. It is both a demonstration and an explanation of the global addiction to the stuff. The fuels have enabled a century of growth unlike any other in the history of the world. Common sense alone tells us that this trajectory cannot continue. In Rees’s terms (ecological footprint analysis), we already need 5 earths to support current levels of production/consumption. However, some 30 COPs have not been able to avert our course, even when there is no doubt that the future of life as we know it is hanging in the balance. Many now believe that collapse is inevitable. Others continue to fight for a swift and controlled reduction in the mining and use of fossil fuels, and of production and consumption. Will the future overtake us or will we determine our own fate? In either scenario, the upward line will turn down. William Rees depicted the familiar rapid decline that has been documented when other species run out of enabling factors for continued expansion.  



Our ‘stuckness’ in the North is spelling doom for the whole planet. That is unfair, as it is the ‘fault’ of the North. ‘We’ developed the dependency on fossil fuels and, for the sake of continuing growth, imposed it on every corner of the globe. Many suspect that COVID-19 is symptomatic of human encroachment on wilderness.



How does Art and Dialog relate to this? Specifically it does not, but in spirit it might very well be central. Mas Ismoyo and mbak Nia, the initiators of the event, have been profoundly influenced by the ancient, spiritual core of the art of batik, Memeyu Hayuning Bawana, making  the beautiful earth more beautiful. [I have blogged about this before.] 


In the midst of rapid technological developments, there is still a spirit to re-examine the fragments of life or the philosophy of the creative process in traditional societies to complete the balance of life in today's era with the aim to achieve a holistic creative expression that builds intimacy that is one with nature. With the goal that artists can achieve harmony, balance, serenity in a process of creating with aesthetics rooted in ethics. There seems to be a tendency that the deeper our intimacy with progress, the more fertile the desire for belonging, maintaining gratitude and devotion to a natural lifestyle that could hold an integral connection between the human mind and natural ecology and the source of creativity. 


I perceived that by sharing this scientific perception of the current state of the world and history, it might be possible to facilitate more communication between North and South. I wanted to convey my conviction to these artists, whose underpinnings have been knocked out from under them by the impacts of COVID, that their work is at the core of what the world needs today. I perceived it not so much as a search for solutions, but rather being the solution through their search, dedication to making the beautiful world more beautiful (Memeyu Hayuning Bawana) being central. I was touched when time was taken at the opening of the event to pray for its smooth execution. This was conducted in traditional ceremonial form (Pengawikan) with chanting, incense and holy water to bless all. It situated us a sacred space together. It was moving and it kindled hope.


I am a specialist in the textiles of the Batak peoples of North Sumatra and a Defashion activist. Western fashion is ‘stuck’. Industrial clothing is being produced ever faster; is worn ever less; is tossed away in all its toxicity to pollute the earth and clog waterways. And the industry remains hell bent on greater expansion. It is unable to self-regulate and the parameters of nature never figure in its calculations. It is engaged in a frenzy of production and does all that is within its power to expand consumption and thereby enable its continuing madness.


Against this backdrop the original handwoven garments of the Batak have become increasingly precious to me. Fieldwork in North Sumatra has made me privy to the life and thought of many weavers; they and their woven cloths have introduced me to the complexity of the art. I am awestruck. And that awe translates into a dull awareness of the superficiality of commercially produced clothing. It is naked speed, exploitation, competition and clock-punching combined with mythical delusions about dressing to enable becoming ‘whoever we want to be’ – all facilitated by the fossil fuel industry that provides synthetic fibres, synthetic dyes, extensive supply chains, industrial agriculture and so on. We are stuck in that, and with every item of clothing that we buy, we support it. Since the globalization of fashion, the whole world is stuck in that. Modernday Batak have also been sucked into the vortex. 


I cannot imagine that the human spirit will allow itself to remain in these shackles. Surely we will demand a way out. I choose, however impractical and irrational it may seem in the eyes of others and even, at times, myself, to treat the remaining precious, thoughtful, heritage-conscious weavers in the Batak region as a possible bridge to a better future. I have long cherished the conviction that the depth of thought that I have discovered in indigenous wisdom is the precious, precious antidote to our stuckness in the heedless suicide of over-production and over-consumption.  The traditional Batak weaving arts and clothing system are a kind of lifeline; a testimony; a source of inspiration; a proof of possibilities. Like the Borobudur ruins rising majestically out of the plain offering mysterious direction and hope. A Batak weaver, and weavers from every other indigenous culture, belonged fully in our midst at Art and Dialog. I felt I was among friends there; we shared the same spirit. I may have been there as a ‘penganggap’, someone to share my opinion, but I was also a member of the same world, the same dialogue.  


Mas Ismoyo and mbak Nia did not use the word ‘stuck/mentok’ in their Art and Dialog proposal, but I realized that the Art and Dialog event emerged out of a recognition of stuckness combined with a longing to celebrate the precious expressions of human possibility, and the will to pass them on to the youth. The Art and Dialog event was like the flower whose beauty and freshness we were thankful for in mas Miko’s art piece. His piece, as I understand it, was a cry of hope in the midst of the pandemic, but the symbol he constructed is universal.


Kerapuhan yang Membangkitkan  (Fragility that Generates)
Miko Jatmiko, Borobudur 18 Novembr 2021



The meeting gave me hope because it referenced that solid, diverse, magnificent backgound that Indonesia has to fall back on: its rich history, and culture from times past, what mas Ismoyo calls the ‘cosmocentric time period’. Has COVID engendered an opportunity to pick up an ancient thread, to recover precious gems from a buried past, and allow newness to emerge? The possibility of greater self-determination? Is this the silver lining of the pandemic?


Rusa Bersayap (Winged Deer)
MJA Nashir, 2021

MJA Nashir’s statue, the Winged Deer (Rusa Bersayap), resonated strongly with me. He resurrected it from forgotten, rotting wood buried in the ground behind his house, a symbol of revival that can both demonstrate and express the capacities of the human spirit. When he made it, he felt that he was freeing something alive and spiritual and for him it was the spirit of nature expressed in ancient cultural idiom. It was the hope that emerges from possibilities and a signpost. I particularly like the mythical and the mystical aspect of the winged deer. It is not just a likeness of a deer anymore than Ismoyo’s batik is just a dye technique applied to cloth. It references cultural wisdom, knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next. 


MJA Nashir stumbled across this buried wood while cultivating his garden. Organically. It has become the spirit of his garden. Automatically I think of Voltaire’s advice to cultivate one's  garden. For Voltaire it represented retracting from the corruption of society to find and preserve the authentic self. For my Indonesian friends, cultivating the garden is about authentically reconnecting, entering dialogue. 


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Ethics and Greed

When Budi died, his family was heart-broken. They are still in mourning. They tend his grave and spend time there with him. They put a roof on stilts above the grave to protect it from the elements. They suffer when they recall Budi’s slow and painful death. They miss him because he was the backbone of the family.


The only known photograph of the old village.

Budi’s village moved three decades ago from a self-contained spot beside running water to an open, windy place beside a new transportation artery. Like many villages. If the running water and the pond offered a bathing hole for humans and buffaloes, and a ready source of water for the gardens and every other need, the new road offered access to the market. And money. The old village had vernacular architecture, symbolism and history. The buildings were built in a cluster. The were no roads, only paths to neighbours, gardens, rice barns, water. The village had an intuitive, organic layout and the paths traced daily life. Its logic was local. Everybody in the village was related to each other either directly, or indirectly through marriage. It was a tightly woven  community. The weavers shared their knowledge with each other; the twine-makers helped each other twist the fibre into long ropes; the water was communally owned and used; the surrounding woods as well. People helped each other in their gardens and there were rules about how to share the yields. Everybody had the same lifestyle. There was hierarchy, certainly. It related to birth order and relationship to the primary clan, also talent and character traits. But the hierarchy was local and not too stretched, its extremities still in view and under social control.


People say that the village moved when the government refused to install electricity that far from the road. To have electric lights, the people had to move closer to the main thoroughfare. The new location is built on a grid, the village roads filled with potholes and mud when it rains, but nevertheless still usually accessible by trishaw. The shacks and bungalows line those pockmarked roads. They are built on privately-owned land. Most pieces were purchased at a premium from a local speculator. The owner of each plot must find his own source of groundwater and nobody goes back to the old stream and ponds except the occasional water buffalo herder  Each family unit pays for its own electricity. The family unit has superseded the village unit and the communal forest has been chopped down. It’s every man for himself.


That’s what Budi described. His home was one of the shacks along the new pockmarked road.  He and his wife talked about life back at the old village and they missed it. “People were nicer,” they said. “They helped each other; there was trust. Now there is only jealousy.” When one person gets ahead, the whole villages hates them while plotting, at the same time, to either better them or bring them down a notch. Jealousy and resentment are the norm, the response to the other one’s success. It has become dog eat dog. Avoiding the shame of poverty and failure is a prime motivator, and dodging arrows the task when there is success. Social face has never been more important than in this dirt-poor village. 


The village is still the frame of reference for daily life but external factors have come into play: the church and its often corrupt access to village money, school fees, taxes. Locally-run shops, but especially the multinational chains with their modern, cool appearance, suck the money out of the village. The local land speculator amassed his initial capital from his hardware shop. Cigarettes are another suction strategy, plotted by some of the biggest multinationals in the world, insidiously hooking the hapless farmers to ensure a steady income for the state and the tobacco industry.


Budi died recently from smoking. Not just his last cent was sucked out of him, and he left behind a wife and five children, the youngest still in grade school, as well as a smoking-related debt. He didn’t have an easy life. He was an orphan, so he never knew parental support and he inherited no land. He was condemned to poverty – and to face much shame, therefore, in the village. During the early years of his marriage he lived in a hut in a garden, not able to afford a home. He was proud to finally be able to  inhabit a house, even though the roof leaked. He was always careful about how he presented himself. He taught his children important values: to respect the community, to be honest, to be respectable despite living in poverty. He could be heavy-handed to enforce these values.


When he died, the family was stricken. His daughter told me about his goodness. "He never turned away a person in need." If there was only a single can of rice left in the sack and someone came by to ask for food, he would command his wife to give away the last bit that they had. The family often ate cheap tubers when their rice ran out. They knew hunger, too.  They could identify. For Budi it was a source of pride as well as adherence to village ethics to give to those less fortunate. He did it above protests from his wife whose focus was on providing nutrition for her children. “How can we eat if somebody else is going hungry?” Budi would ask. He maintained the values of the old village. Life was better there, even if there was less cash. People were kinder; you had more security, you could trust your neighbour’s heart. I wonder how much reciprocity Budi’s values met after they moved to the road? “Life is not fair,” I say to Budi’s daughter who is negotiating her way in this world, “but we have to be true to ourselves; otherwise we have lost everything.”


Budi’s widow has only one piece of land. It is located far from the village, symptomatic of her family’s penury. To get to it, they have to cross the plots of others but right of passage has always been normal and unquestioned. There are worn paths skirting the boundaries of the gardens granting the access that everyone needs. And people tread those paths respectful of each other’s gardens. Budi’s widow’s plot has been farmed for generations and she feels attached to it. “I have harvested corn here with my mother,” she says. The significance of her words is self-explanatory for her. She is saying that her bond with the land is eternal and irreplaceable. She is also steeped in the values of the old village. She knows her heart. A woman of few words, she says what she knows, simply and directly. "I don't want to sell my land. Nothing could replace it." She herself knows no malice, but she feels the pain of malice deeply. It is incomprehensible to her.


Now somebody wants the land far away from the village because it has a nice view. The government is pushing tourism as a local industry. It is supposed to generate modern wealth for this impoverished region. The local rich man, who garnered his wealth through his shop, and then made a killing by buying up and selling the land where the new village stands, smells new profits. Now he wants to play with even bigger boys: investors in the tourist industry. He has bought up all the land on the escarpment from the poor farmers and he can expect to rake in the profits when he resells to the developers. He has local police and politicians behind him, all expecting their ‘right’ of cut. He is not afraid to use pressure tactics to acquire his land. He has enough land now to be able to deny right of passage to farmers who want to reach their plot. He can secretly destroy their crops. He is rich and will get richer. The extremities of hierarchy are becoming more distant. He is a member of the village lineage but he compartmentalizes his values. “Business doesn’t know family,” he points out. “Business operates by different rules.” The old village is still dying.



When I think about what is needed to create a sustainable world, to push back against the hand of capitalism, I feel discouraged recalling what has been tearing this village asunder for generations, and knowing who is holding the ‘apparently’ winning hand, a hand that entails  suffering and decline of every kind for everyone else.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Batik Day 2021: Leading the World of Fashion

 For awhile now I have engaged with various groups to work on ‘the problem of fashion’, an out-of-control industry that over-produces, pollutes, and emits life-threatening amounts of carbon dioxide. For decades I have argued for a more inclusive definition of fashion, or better said perhaps, for the recognition that the fashion behemoth that we currently know and reify, is just a culturally-specific narcissistic fat-cat that needs to be cut down to size to allow the clothing expressions of all other cultures to flourish once again. How to accomplish this goal?

This entails, on the one hand, helping people recognize that ‘fashion’ is not a ‘thing’ out there, but a creation of our own doing. The real human universal is not ‘fashion’, but creativity in dressing, regardless of how you adorn your body, regardless of your cultural medium. That is what we have in common with all other people, not a globalized industry.


On the other hand, the task entails helping people to recognize that the clothing produced by the industrial system is an expression of deep psychic poverty and wafer thin superficiality, all in the interests, perhaps, of deflecting our thoughts away from the great harm that it is doing to our planet. It is a status commodity and pretends to help us construct dreams and myths about who we would like to be in this world, but in reality most is cheap, disposable junk. Coming from the West, where cheap, disposable clothing has been normalized, it is challenging to figure out how to convey to people just how deeply meaningful clothing in other cultures can be, has been, and sometimes still is. 


Today I saw an image that captures the essence of what I would like to convey: a poster about Javanese batik inspired by the spiritual and philosophical essence of batik. My photographer and artist friend in Central Java, Mas MJA Nashir, sent the image to me in a chat this morning. Memayu hayuning bawana means laku secara spiritual, to perform in a spiritual way, he explained. Literally it means to ‘beautify this beautiful world’ (mempercantik bumi yg cantik). The beautifying that he meant runs so deep. It means to perform in a beautiful way towards the earth, towards nature and towards life (terhadap Bumi, terhadap Alam, terhadap Kehidupan). Life for the Javanese, for the batik maker, for the batik lover, is beauty.  The root word in memayu and hayuning, is the same, he pointed out; it is ayu, ‘beautiful’. Memayu is ‘to make beautiful’  (Hayu=Ayu=Cantik . Memayu = membuat cantic). 


“I always remember Mas Ismoyo saying that memayu hayuning bawana is the essence of batik for the Javanese,” Mas Nashir confides. Mas Ismoyo is a mutual friend and master batiker, living in Yogyakarta, whose studio has been an inspiration for Nashir and me for more than a decade, a place where we go for stimulating conversations and to get in touch with spiritual roots. I always leave that Eden in a spirit of peace and wonder. 


I perceive their batik workshops as teaching the essence of the environmental movement: loving the earth and all creatures in it. This is what inspires all the batiks of Mas Ismoyo and his beautiful wife, a master batiker in her own right, Mbak Nia.


Mas Nashir has a small patio behind his house. During the corona lockdown he has been fixing it up and collecting plants to decorate it. “I made this photograph this morning and used it in my poster to celebrate Batik Day,” he wrote.

His poster is inspired by Mas Ismoyo’s words and the workshops that he gives with Mbak Nia, by the plants that Nashir tends, by Nashir's love for batik – both his mother and his brother are involved in the batik world – and not least, by his cultural activism. Nashir’s soul is dedicated to memayu hayuning bawana; it is what he longs for in this world of rapacious business, this Anthropocene. He knows that Anthropos can do the opposite, can beautify instead of making sacrifice zones of peoples, cultures, nature and even our future.

Suddenly tears prick my eyes. The penny drops.  This poster shares what I would like to convey to people about indigenous clothing traditions of other cultures. Depth, beauty and going further than ‘doing no harm’: doing good to planet, nature and people; living a spiritually true life; aspiring to beauty.  To wear beauty, to create beauty, to insist on beauty. That is when you have desirable clothing. 




(blog dedicated to Sara Arnold, who understands)

Friday, October 01, 2021

Why Racism in Fashion goes deeper than you think: An interview with Sandra Niessen by Safia Minney

October 2021

Safia Minney, MBE, is an award-winning social entrepreneur & recognised for the company she founded, People Tree, a pioneer of sustainable fashion. She led the business as Global CEO for 20+ years in Japan & Europe. Safia is an advisor, executive coach and author of many books including; ‘Slave to Fashion’, campaigning to eradicate modern day slavery in the fashion industry and ‘Slow Fashion - Aesthetics meets Ethics’. Safia recently launched  to promote sustainable living and leadership and joined other business leaders inspired by XR to establish

Sandra Niessen (PhD) is a Canadian/Dutch anthropologist whose research on clothing and textiles among the Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia generated insights into the impact of global fashion and economics on indigenous dress. Since retiring from academia, she has become active in the Research Collective for Decoloniality and Fashion (RCDF) and Fashion Act Now (FAN). 

1. What is the relationship between Western fashion and racism?

The colonial era cleaved the world in two; the substratum of diversity became colonizers on the one hand, and the colonized on the other. Throughout the history of the world there have always been power hierarchies, but with colonialism there was, for the first time, one that operated globally to create a single binary. Decolonial theorists refer to it as the ‘colonial difference’.  Clothing, a powerful signifier of status and identity, became perhaps the most immediate expression of that colonial difference, to the extent that the first definitions of fashion slotted the phenomenon of ‘fashion’ and the practice of fashion on the ‘civilization’ side of the binary in contradistinction to what was considered ‘uncivilized’: ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’, ‘heathen’ and ‘lacking in’ history,  fashion and so on. In short, the binary was constructed on a foundation of race, with the White race embodying the superior component. This binary has continued to operate in the fashion industry. 

While the absence of black, indigenous and people of colour in boardrooms and on runways today is usually pointed to as evidence of racism in fashion, the extent of fashion’s racism goes much, much deeper, and has become so normalized and expected that it is rarely consciously perceived. Nevertheless, all wearers of fashion currently support it, willfully or not. This conceptual blindness is evidence of a powerful capacity of the fashion industry to shape thought. Fashion places emphasis on visual products: style change, trends and seasonality all skillfully presented through fashion advertising including the catwalk. The behind-the-scenes of fashion are kept hidden and rarely seen by consumers, until egregious human rights abuses, of which the collapse of Rana Plaza is an example, make them visible for a moment. This happened again during the COVID-19 layoffs. The fact that millions of people are chained, through poverty, to a system to make garments that are not of their own culture should be proof enough of global injustice, based on race, regardless of the pay rate. It is also to the Southern Nations that the majority of fashion waste is increasingly being tossed. Racism in fashion is evident, through these examples, by its erasure from the face of fashion. 

Fashion has also been highly successful at negating the importance of all other systems of clothing that are not integrated in the global fashion system. They are negated by language.  The term ‘craft’, for example, situates the making of indigenous dress systems a grade below fashionable dress, which is made by ‘industry’ and ‘business’. The value of other dress systems is also negated by the normalization of their loss, awakening the expectation that indigenous peoples and their clothing systems are doomed to inevitable disappearance. Such is the hubris of Western superiority. Fashion functions on the momentum of racism. 

  1. What can we do about it?

In a nutshell, awareness of fashion’s colonial origins is the first step. A fashion practice rooted in fairness and respect is the second. 

Fashion functions through lies, myths and erasures to hide from view that it maintains cultural hierarchies based on race and discrimination. These lies, myths and erasures need to be called out and exposed to end the complicity of fashion in global racism and unfairness. Fashion education needs to be restructured around the human universal of clothing rather than the culturally specific  ‘Western fashion’, and the history of global dress systems needs to be recognized as the context of the history of  Western fashion. Remediation can only occur when people, both makers and consumers, begin to connect the dots and refuse to be complicit in the strategies that the fashion industry uses to promote its global-scale hierarchies. Respect for living cultural and natural systems must become a limitation to expansion for the Western fashion business, and the ultimate rationale for it to radically scale down in size. Fashion Act Now points to the need for a diversity of equally respected clothing systems to supplant the current singular, globally dominant fashion system.

3. You say that you can’t have capitalism without sacrifice zones, and these zones don’t exist, without disposable people and disposable people without racism. Please tell us more….

In his article, ‘Racism is Killing the Planet’ Hop Hopkins wrote memorably, evocatively and powerfully, that 
“You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without          disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.”
Your question makes the connection with capitalism, and that is the correct inference. Capitalism is an economic system based on resource extraction and growth without restrictions, and therefore both creates, and depends on sacrifice zones: places on earth deemed dispensable and disposable for the furtherance of economic interests. Growth has become the holy grail of capitalism, a principle that our governments and business leaders have been unwilling to touch or to attempt to alter, despite overwhelming evidence that GDP growth is not equivalent to well being and is destroying the planet. Terms like ‘anthropocene’, ‘capitalocene’, and ‘plantationocene’ have been coined to designate the massive destruction of our planet through the doings of humans in the pursuit of economic growth. Wealth has become the focus, not need and not well-being. What Hop Hopkins was getting at is that destruction at this scale is only possible if there is disregard for humanity. He is pointing out that guardians of ecosystems are being denied their humanity, and this on racist grounds, in order to gain access to their lands and the resources therein. If there was respect for all races and peoples, and for all ecosystems, business interests would be ‘limited’ by the obligation to perform consistent with that respect. An ideology has been developed to make it not just thinkable, but also justifiable, to destroy the means of life-support of indigenous peoples, and all other peoples conveniently deemed ‘dispensable’ to prioritize the interests of GDP growth.

I have argued that the fashion industry is involved with sacrifice zones in a variety of ways:
  1. It utilizes the products from sacrifice zones. Examples are oil-based synthetic fibres and dyestuffs. It also heavily depends on the oil industry for the extensive transportation of goods entailed in the production, marketing, and disposal of clothing.

  2. It creates sacrifice zones. An obvious example is cotton grown on plantations, water-guzzling, green deserts of industrial agriculture.

  3. The fashion industry lays waste to other cultures. I have expanded the use of the term ‘sacrifice zone’ to include indigenous cultures and people. Women whose lives are wasted on insufficiently compensated labour and tribal peoples forced to give up their culture when forcefully removed from their land are examples of human sacrifice for the sake of economic growth. Cultural sacrifice is huge and involves profound psychological and spiritual damage as well as knowledge and heritage loss. It is the loss of history and the psychic wealth of humanity.

  4. Recently Sara Arnold pointed out that all of this adds up to a temporal sacrifice zone, namely the future of the planet. This is what the youth of today are calling out very loudly.

The fashion industry benefits in sales from the production of sacrifice zones. The industry conceptually erases the destructive impacts of its own economic growth. Clearly the production and sale of clothing is no longer the goal of the industry, but rather a means or a strategy to expand their own interests and wealth. When indigenous peoples are forced to give up their clothing heritage because they are removed from their lands, they are simultaneously forced to buy clothing made available on the market. In this way, the sacrifice of their own, usually environmentally-friendly clothing systems, entails the expansion of the unsustainable global industry of fashion that is deeply dependent on fossil fuels.

Two final notes: 

As pointed out by Naomi Klein, the ‘who’ making the decisions about what and who can be sacrificed has everything to do with white supremacy and global power relations. 

Second, any amelioration of this systemic problem must involve the regeneration of the land. To cease creating sacrifice zones and to permit people to pursue their own lifestyles on their land, will involve respect and limiting the growth of industry and consumption.

  1. The early fashion theorist, Georg Simmel, claimed that “Fashion exists in our society and not in tribal and classless society because of hierarchy, and that hierarchy drives style change?” Tell us your perspective on this.

This early claim has been cited and repeated like a mantra of truth in schools of fashion for and by generation upon generation of students. From my perspective, this ‘accepted wisdom’ is an example of the ‘colonial difference’ (mentioned above). It can inspire no pride that it has become accepted in academe, while based only on preconception and bias and not on research. As I tried to point out in my answer to the previous question, this is a claim based on Western ethnocentrism and hubris.

I propose something quite different, viz. that diverse clothing systems be understood in terms of their unique internal dynamics; each system is tailored to local circumstances, environments, cultures and histories. It doesn’t make much sense to say, “’They’ don’t have fashion because their clothing is not like ‘ours’”. It only leads to a circular argument based on an initial premise of Western superiority. More useful, in the interest of comparative study, is to examine similarities and differences among clothing systems. I fail to see that the dynamics of the Western fashion system are more or less unique, or intrinsically superior in any way, to the dynamics of other clothing systems. Alas, there has been little attention paid to other systems and therefore there is not much knowledge of them among students of fashion. The historical accidents of economics (colonialism and capitalism) and technology (the impact of the industrial revolution) have facilitated the global dominance of, and the huge attention paid to, the Western system. 

  1. How do we cut emissions and create a Just Transition, one where the 60 million people in the fashion industry can still feed themselves?

There is no doubt that the fashion industry has to degrow by a significant amount. It must get to carbon neutral by 2030 (this goal is considerably more ambitious than 2050 and corresponds with a precautionary approach to the global emergency) and the only way to accomplish that is to shrink considerably in size, use renewable energy, support regenerative agriculture and start operating locally. If the fashion industry truly cared about the 60 million (or more) people in its labour and supply chains, they would not be so badly paid as they are now. Let us not use the ‘just transition’ as an excuse for a slow transition. The very best that the fashion industry can do for people is ensure they inherit a healthy planet. Governments, not just the fashion industry, must shoulder this responsibility. Money must be invested grassroots instead of flowing upward for ostentatious and rapacious consumption by rich power-holders.

  1. How can regenerative fashion empower tribal and indigenous people and cultures?

What is ‘regenerative fashion’? Certainly all clothing systems, including Western fashion, need to be sustainable. That is beyond question.  By now, however, it will have become clear that my interest is in clothing self-determination as a facet of cultural self-determination, global cultural diversity and cultural survival. I would like to see the regeneration of local and cultural clothing systems, many if not all of which have been compromised in some way by the globally dominant fashion system. I am interested in the revival of the commons in the development of local clothing systems. I am often impressed that ‘empowerment’ as an outside force is not needed because it implies that somehow the fashion industry knows better; this is hubris. What I perceive as necessary is allotting room for self-determination. The fashion industry has to take many steps back and allow other peoples the latitude and means to practise their own cultural traditions. In the spirit of reparation and good will the fashion industry can offer genuine, disinterested support to indigenous peoples and cultures where necessary to enable them to once again thrive in their own communities, on their own land and within their own cultural systems. Paying a living wage and reparations for past insufficient wages are a start. Offering support with no strings attached to indigenous efforts to rekindle their clothing systems is a further step. This may mean assisting in the re-acquisition of ancestral land, or offering courses in regenerative agriculture. Industry can show respect for indigenous design by not stealing it. It could celebrate and support indigenous ways, from a respectful distance. Reparation needs to occur with powerful motives, not for profit but for global well being.