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.