Friday, August 13, 2010

Indigenous Prize Winners

Merdi Sihombing, a leading Batak clothing designer, has just won the 2010 first prize for KAIN TENUN NASIONAL (Indonesian woven cloth). He is a modern, urban fashion designer. His winning design, however, is a recognizable, traditional Batak textile, a so-called ulos runjat. (Merdi has altered colour and fibre.) It is exciting that a Batak designer has won this prize. For me, it is striking that an indigenous design, developed by centuries of Batak weavers in the villages, has been the foundation for this illustrious modern cloth. This insertion of the ancient and indigenous into the modern and urban says alot.

My journey Back to the Villages in June was good and successful in many respects, but upon my return, I appear unable to find any capacity within myself to accept the total decline of Batak weaving. My mind dwells on my journey; constantly I find myself examining avenues for the future survival of this precious art form.

Recently, the Tribal Textiles forum sent out a reminder about the Tinkuy, a gathering of weavers, that will take place in Sacred Valley, Peru in November 2010. I find this inspiring. It is being organized by the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) . They write, on their website, precisely what I could write about Batak textiles (and what countless others could write about indigenous textiles elsewhere).
It is becoming clear that the survival of diversity contributes to the valuable storehouse of world resources.
Textile systems developed in Peru over the millennia represent a treasury of techniques rare in the world. Most remain unknown outside of Peru. They are passed on, not by writing, but by the Andean process of person-to-person communication, by watching and practicing.
Peruvian weaving is a ritual activity with many layers of meaning.
The so-called “Tinkuy” that they are organizing is bringing people from everywhere together to learn about Andean weaving and to practise it -- together! Everybody – from every culture and every age – is invited. The community that must learn about and support this ”world resource” is, indeed, the whole world. The Centre has reconized the importance of creating fora in which information can be shared and transmitted between generations and between peoples. The key is communication.

What an innovative and inspiring initiative! I can immediately think of powerful and useful variations on the theme:

It would be so useful to have a Centre for Traditional Batak Textiles, or a Centre for Traditional Textiles of Sumatra, or a Centre for Tribal Textiles of Indonesia - or ASEAN. A World Centre for Tribal Textiles! What would it be like (especially for the weavers themselves) to bring Toraja, Dayak and Batak weavers together? To have representatives of closely-related cultures who otherwise never meet up, come together to share their closely-related weaving knowledge while working at their looms! What would it be like to bring Toba Batak from different regions together with Simalungun and Karo Batak weavers together? What about Acehnese and Minangkabau and Batak weavers, as they have so profoundly influenced each other in the past? And, speaking of profound influence in the past, what about bringing weavers from India together with weavers from Indonesia? The opportunities are legion, the possible spin-offs exciting to contemplate. It is about cross-fertilization, learning, the preservation and growth of knowledge and traditions, mutual appreciation, stimulation and encouragement. The survival of diversity. The survival of the creative history of man – and woman – kind.

In May, under the auspices of Voyage & Culture  in Amsterdam, I hope to lead a tour to the Batak area, specifically to kindle/nurture/satisfy external interest in the Batak weaving arts. There will be hands-on opportunities for the participants. On the flip side, this is a way to celebrate the weavers, give them an additional source of income and encourage pride in their skills. It is another way to give a boost to the Batak weaving arts using international support, and to get knowledge about their techniques out there in the world. A little drop in an exciting bucket – that could expand to have the dimensions of Lake Toba.

I think of my friends, Nia and Ismoyo of Brahma Tirta Sari  in Yogyakarta. These batik artists have long recognized the importance of indigenous traditions to their own modern art forms.

Cross-cultural collaboration is another critical and enriching aspect of the Brahma Tirta Sari creative process. Their commitment to cross-cultural exchange is rooted in the ideal of human unity and recognises the creative life force not only inherent in ancient Javanese traditions, but also in the traditions and knowledge of indigenous cultures. As Ismoyo describes
“Tradition is the DNA strands of our world culture. We are truly indebted to these threads that continuously flow to make the present the past and form the basis for creativity in each subsequent era.”
(Joanna Barrkman, Curator, Southeast Asian Art and Material Culture, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Australia)

Currently, they are developing plans to bring modern textile artists in touch with village producers. Their argument, that I whole-heartedly endorse, is that they both need each other to grow and develop. Mutualism. Nia and Ismoyo, themselves, grab every opportunity that they can find, or create, to work with indigenous practitioners, and have done so in Africa (Nigeria), Australia (Utopia and Ernabella), and especially in the batik villages of Java (e.g. Giriloyo).

They are working on a variant of the same theme as the organizers of the Tinkuy in Peru: communication across artificial boundaries that have emerged socially, geographically and historically that can get in the way of the growth of the art form.

I am going to closely follow The Gathering of the Tribes, a comparable initiative in Malaysia that is heating up. It is scheduled to take place January 14 - 16 2011. It will do just as its name says: bring the different tribal peoples together where they will focus on  specific cultural heritage issues.

These initiatives are emanating inspiring rays of hope.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Back to the Villages - the map!

See a map below for the routes in North Sumatra taken for the Back to the Villages project.  Click on the image to see a larger one. 


Schedule in North Sumatra, June 2010
 5 - arrive in Medan from Jakarta
 6 - Gunung Leuser (Orang Utan rehabilitation centre)
 7 - Medan to Berastagi
  8 - Kaban Jahe
  9 - Tongging, Paropo, Silalahi
10 - Berastagi to Tuktuk via Simalungun and Parapat
11 - Lumban Suhisuhi
12 - Simanindo, Ambarita, Tomok
13 - Silindung Valley
14 - Silindung Valley
15 - Tuktuk to Medan
16-18 - Medan
19 - Medan to Parapat and Tuktuk
20 - Tuktuk to Simanindo, Lumban Suhisuhi, Pusuk Buhit, Harian Boho and Sihotang. Overnight at the foot of Pusuk Buhit on the shore of Lake Toba
21 - Back to Samosir, and from Pangururan to Simbolon to Nainggolan, back to Tuktuk, Parapat and all the way south to Muara
22 - Muara
23 - Silindung - to Parapat at the end of the day
24 - from Parapat to Balige
25 - Balige to Kaban Jahe and Berastagi
26 - Berastagi to Medan - then an afternoon flight to Aceh
27 - Banda, Aceh
28 - Banda to Medan
29 - Medan - to Amsterdam over KL