Friday, May 28, 2010

So much goodwill!

Every one of these last days before my departure bring a new sense of blessings and the awareness that this Back to the Villages project was “meant to be”. The involvement of the donors in the project is the source of these surges of rosy feelings. Each one reminds me of why I decided to include this “extra” North-South dimension.

The North-South dimension is already hugely present: white person from North studies weaving tradition in South, based on information stored in museums and archives in the North, derived from past happenings in the South; she makes a book in the North using information collected in the South and will transport that back to the South etc. etc.etc.

Most poignant right now are the goodwill donations from the North. Just the other day, I received a letter from my dear friend, Heather Wilson. It touched me deeply and I am glad that she is willing to let me share some of it in this blog:

“I am so happy to be able to support this project. To have their “folk art” (as some might say) interpreted as an expression of their lives (and of them) to the world should be a source of enormous pride to the weavers. To have someone say, “I see what you are doing, and it is important” sometimes comes too late – or often, not at all (which is why your current success is so gratifying to all of us!!!!!) ....”

Such spontaneous, heartfelt goodwill reminds me of the first donation. It was made in Seattle last September (2009) after I delivered a talk in which I mentioned the Back to the Villages plan. A beautiful and enthusiastic lady in the audience (Nancy Evans), wearing a spectacular handmade lace collar, opened her pocketbook and asked how she could contribute to the project. I scratched my head and then suggested that she could perhaps donate a book. Thus an idea was born.

There is a ring of authenticity in all of the messages that I have received, as the donors have put their hearts into their words.

(This book is) proof that the maintenance of your traditions and art are of importance to the World. The members of the Soroptimist Club in Arnhem (Holland) wish you well in the future.

The Soroptimists of Arnhem have given generously to this project.

 A message from a member of the Indonesian Heritage Society who was particularly helpful during the preparations for the journey wrote,

Dear Weaver
I hope this book will give you, and many others, the inspiration to continue the wonderful gift of weaving those magnificent Batak Ulos.
I have fallen in love with them and the culture they represent.

Warm regards from a textile lover and enjoy this gift.
Helmy de Korver
Jakarta 2010

My mother is also excited about the project! She hopes that her contribution can be given to Nai Ganda, one of my closest Batak weaver friends:
I think your work is very beautiful. Best wishes and congratulations from the proud mother of Sandra from Canada, a faraway country.

In my own experience, oscillating between North and South, my life in each half is but a “half life” and I need to keep combining the two to feel “whole”. This is not just a feeling; it is the result of a political, social, and economic reality. North and South continually reciprocally mold each other even if that awareness is not generalized or uppermost. I am so pleased about the donations to this project, not just because of the assistance that it represents in the Back to the Weavers project, but because of the awareness that it raises, the involvement and caring that it stimulates, the sense of “being part of it all”. In the end, the weaving tradition of the Batak can only continue if markets allow it to be viable. We create the market!

We have a daunting task ahead of us if we intend indigenous art traditions throughout the world to survive.

The Best Thing

A friend often reminds me of the words of the Dalai Lama, “Not getting what you want is sometimes the best thing that can happen to you.”

The day after announcing (in blog, email and newspaper) that my cherished dream to bring Legacy in cloth back to the villages was about to come true, the filmers who were going to join me on the journey suddenly cancelled out. This was a huge disappointment and initially I felt quite disoriented. But Legacy has taught me many lessons. One of them is faith in the turns that life brings. There have been many “ups” during the thirty odd years that I have been associated with this book, but also “downs”, some of them so deep that I will never care to relate them. Always the “downs” have led me to better solutions/options/directions. I have come to believe that even the enormous difficulties that I have encountered while trying to bring this book into the world have been gifts from a Guardian Angel. I know that the words of the Dalai Lama are true.

Fortified by this knowledge, I had confidence even in my disappointment and went about talking and emailing with many to develop a new vision and course of action. In my heart, I quickly discerned that I had but one option: to let the show go on. As soon as possible.  “My weavers” are not getting any younger (neither am I, for that matter.) And given that I will be visiting the Bataklands anyway from June 5 – 17 to lay the groundwork for a weaver tour in 2011, a wonderful opportunity to distribute the books has been presented to me practically on a silver platter.

Plan B is therefore low key. I will be retracing my footsteps to many of the places where I conducted fieldwork and inevitably I will meet many weavers (or their families) whom I met in the past. The meetings will be quiet and informal, unassuming and relaxed, just as then. This will be the ambiance in which I hand over the books with words of thanks, appreciation and encouragement.

The meetings will be recorded for posterity, not with moving film, but with still photography. My travelling companion, Jantine Koobs, is excited by the prospect of recording these moments and I am intensely grateful for her presence.

There will be significant advantages to doing it this way. One is that I will be travelling with a woman. Weaving is a woman’s world and the weavers will be more likely to be themselves and at ease under these circumstances. Furthermore, they will not experience the initial shyness that comes from having a film camera in their face. The gift-giving will demand less attention from authority figures who, intentionally or unintentionally, steal the limelight. These moments are intended to be just for the weavers (although there is always an entourage of children, curious neighbours and the like).

In September/October, I expect to be back in the region and can finish off the task if I am not able to squeeze it all into the time available in June. This planned journey is the silver lining that has come out of the cancellation of the filmers, but I will not be divulging all of that until the plans are better defined!

I leave in 4 days and am terribly excited!

(Below is the blog that I wrote announcing my trip. I removed it when I learnt that the filmers would not be joining me, but realize now that history should not be erased!)

Blog: Project Back to the Villages/Pulang Kampung is going to happen!

The Back to the Villages project is about to begin! On 18 June, the award-winning filmers, Jim de Seve and Kian Tjong will meet me in Medan and we will start to realize the plans on which we are still working feverishly.

This is a terribly important announcement for me. In the introduction to Legacy in Cloth, I wrote,

“During the course of the research for the present publication, I began to perceive a salvage function for the catalogue that could meet the needs of Batak weavers. Many weavers were excited by the photographs of old museum cloths that I had brought with me from Europe. They asked for copies so that they could have a record of the designs depicted...It had become a priority for this book to be useful in returning, in photograph form, some of the Batak textile heritage to North Sumatra...The prohibitive cost of this publication is a challenge to be faced to ensure its distribution in North Sumatra.” (p. 18)

I remember that my heart quailed as I pondered this last sentence, years ago, and I changed it from a determined promise to what is written there today. I wondered how and if I would ever successfully confront that challenge of making sure that Batak weavers got access to the book. I know, now, that it is the kind of thing that is impossible to do on one’s own. It is thanks to friends and supporters of the project that this very dear wish can become a reality. (See also separate blogs about donors, kind Indonesian diplomats, textile-lovers, friends, weaver-organizations and women’s organizations who have assisted.)

This is our plan:

We will spend two days in Medan preparing for the trip and visiting friends and supporters. I will be cutting up one volume of Legacy and scurrying around laminating pages on which weavers are depicted (these are to be given to the weavers so that they can show them handily to friends, family and fellow villagers – maybe also people who want to commission textiles from them). Jim and Kian will have just arrived from the United States and will be getting their sea legs. Kian was born in Medan but has lived for a long time in the States; Jim has never been to Indonesia. I will have been in Indonesia for almost three weeks helping to prepare a weaver tour that will take place in May 2011 ( so I should be over my jet-lag and handling the heat.

Then we will start out. A Batak car-rental in Medan has given us a good deal on a van. His brother is married to a woman of the Hutabarat clan, the clan which adopted me, so we call each other Pariban, a kinship term, and already there is a light-hearted feeling of dependability and safety. I know that he will have Batak drivers who know the region well and will be enthusiastic about our venture and anxious to facilitate it.

I expect that we will go to the Karo area first. It is close by and our destination is in the highlands so it is cool and there are many pleasant hotels for vacationers. Here, Kian and Jim will have a soft landing as they continue to adapt to their new and foreign surroundings. We will make the short drive from Berastagi to Kaban Jahe on marketday. Once there, I hope we will meet up with indigo dyers whom I once knew, and the descendants of those who may no longer be alive. We will go the market upon arrival because the stall proprietors know all the latest news on the who and what of textile production. Based on the information that they give us, we will organize our first book transfers.

These first transfers will be experimental. How formal or informal should we make it? Who should be involved? How will the people react?

We are very pleased and relieved that Juara Ginting, a Karo Batak anthropologist who divides his life between The Netherlands and Indonesia, has expressed a desire to join us on this leg of our journey. He has a deep understanding of Karo culture and speaks the language. It will be a great boon to be able to discuss all the aspects of our venture with him.

From there, we will execute something comparable in Simalungun villages and then move on to Toba. While we have a detailed schedule laid out, we also have consciously chosen to allow serendipity to play a role so that we can capture film-worthy “moments”. Jim and Kian are anxious to make film footage that will show the deep meaning of the cloth in Batak society and not just the transfer of the book.

We have 38 days planned and if we need to stay longer, we have all made provisions to make sure that this is possible.

The books are en route by mail to Medan and we hope to find them upon our arrival. This was facilitated by the Indonesian Heritage Society, a dynamic group of people (mostly ex-pats) in all walks of life who live in Indonesia and care about and promote Indonesian culture.

I have purchased a mini-laptop which should not be too onerous to drag along and I plan to write a blog now and then to share the ups and downs of our adventure. There you will see how our schedule is unfolding.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sanggar Kreasi Batak

Sanggar Kreasi Batak is an active group keeping Batak traditions alive in the New York area. When I attended the Arts of Pacific Asia Fair in March, two of their members visited me at my stand and subsequently donated a book to the Back to the Villages project. Wita Sitepu-Pagan sent me a photograph and a touching message from the group:

“Sanggar Kreasi Batak really appreciates this opportunity and please also tell the weavers that we are very proud with their ulos. OK boru Hutabarat,  Have a good trip and excellent documentary”

Later, Wita told me about the background that went into their photograph. How wonderful to have had Legacy in cloth used in this way!

"Dear Sandra,

We took time last Sunday to get dressed up and do our best to display all ulos we posses. We took pictures of our activities that day and it turned out to be a very fascinating day. We used your book as a guidance and the source of informations. It became a stimulating conversation.

Take care and salam hangat kembali.
Wita Sitepu-Pagan"