Friday, December 24, 2010

Muara, O Muara

Muara is a bay in the southwest corner of Lake Toba. The long descent by road is spectacular. Hairpin curves open onto breathtaking views. The sign reads, Muara na Uli, Beautiful Muara. Muara has been posted as a new tourist destination. It used to be a rather out-of-the-way place, approached best by boat, with not much to offer to tourists who like a little bit of comfort. But now a new future lies clearly before it.

Today, exactly a month ago, I visited Muara. Restuala Namora Pakpahan had told me that there would be a weaving workshop on 23 November based on my book. This reaction to my book exceeded my wildest dreams but fit with my secret hopes and longings. I knew that I had to be present.

We arrived in Muara on the evening of the 22nd and the next morning made our way over to Huta na Godang, the village where all the weavers in the frontispiece of Legacy in cloth live and where Pak Restuala has his home. I had no inkling of what was about to transpire, but I had been unable to sleep the night before. When Pak Jerry pulled up and I looked out of our vehicle, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of something enormous about to happen. Scaffolding had been built around the yard to the right and in the road I saw a person walking with a Batak textile over his shoulder. This only happens when there is a bona fide ceremony.
It was Pak Restuala. He greeted us warmly and showed me the red-painted sign hanging at the gateway to his yard announcing a (in translation) Weaving Workshop of Batak Ulos with Sandra Niessen. Elegantly-dressed dancers bade us enter the textile-clad space.

Muara textiles were hung on the scaffolding surrounding the yard
where the "workshop" took place on 23 November 2010.
First Pak Restuala’s mother wrapped a beautiful harungguan textile around my shoulders, the most prestigious cloth woven in the region.

One of only three remaining Muara weavers who know how to make the
harungguan textile, the kind that was wrapped around my shoulders on that
unforgettable day.
 Then I was greeted by a long line-up of friends. They included Ompu Ester and Ompu Josua and their husbands, to whom I had given copies of Legacy four months prior. I cannot ever remember having received a warmer welcome and I was ushered over to the seat of honour next to Pak Restuala. I found myself amid dozens of women working at all different aspects of textile production from winding the warp to twining the decorative edging on the finished cloth.

Women were executing every aspect of weaving.
 Their husbands were there, too, most of them sitting on chairs.
Ompu Josua doli, who later presented a speech to me.
Pak Restuala began to speak. He told me that he had seen me when he was a small schoolboy, when I had come to Muara the first time in 1980. Now a grown man of 35 years old, with vast and varied life experience, including a career in Jakarta, he had returned to Beautiful Muara. He wanted to be one of the architects of change for a better future. He is particularly interested in perpetuating Batak culture so that it may survive undiminished in the world of the future. When he saw my book, he decided that he wanted to begin with Batak ulos, the cloth that is indispensable at all stages of Batak life. Essentially I was being pressed, ever so gently but just as unmistakably, into serving as an ambassador of Muara and Batak culture.

And my arrival on the 23rd was a catalyst to kick-start the revival of weaving in Muara. I remembered the brief and sincere discussion with Ompu Ester before I left in June, when she asked me to assist in reviving weaving in Muara and had told me that it was not possible to produce indigo dye anymore. Now, before my eyes, there were indigo pots containing indigo.

Alot had changed in four months. I imagined the long discussions, the will, the synergy, the vision, the energy, the co-operation needed to bring this special day together. And now I saw the joy and the spirit of the villagers.

Ompu Josua is sitting to the left and I am handing her photographs. As always, she has a smile on her face. Pak Restuala is sitting to the right holding a copy of my book. In the foreground, just barely visible, is the wooden dish (sapa) with corn and peanuts. I have that beautiful harungguan textile wrapped around me, but it is slipping off my shoulder.
 I had one additional copy of Legacy with me and I gave it to Pak Restuala while I expressed my amazement at the number of different kinds of Batak textiles lining our ceremonial space, the skill of the weavers in making such cloths and the ancientness of the tradition, all this by way of emphasizing why this art form must not be lost. I then introduced MJA Nashir as he has already done so much to document (in written, photographic and filmic form) our travels, work that will one day be even more accessible to the Batak than my own. I did not want him to disappear into anonymity on this occasion. Later, he too was diulosi, wrapped in a Batak textile, again by Pak Restuala’s mother. 

MJA Nashir receiving an ulos from
Pak Restuala's mother.
MJA Nashir's happy receipt of the ulos.

Then it was breakfast time and a huge, ancient wooden plate, the kind used by the Batak a century ago, was placed before us laden with boiled corn and local fruits. Ensuring the perpetuation of Batak indigenous culture was his goal, Pak Restuala emphasized again, as we all nibbled on corn and I gave away some photographs that MJA Nashir had taken when we came in June.

Our attention then turned to music, another threatened aspect of Batak culture.There was a youthful band directed by a very energetic music-lover, and they played tune after tune. Our visit was also giving them occasion to play in public. Their talent was admirable.

The youthful musicians of Muara.
The mood was warming up. We danced, posed for group photographs, toured all of the different weaving techniques and reviewed the hanging textiles.

The school teacher is to the left.
Pak Restuala is in the middle.

The delicious lunch in the home of a school-teacher was an example of the best cuisine that indigenous Batak culture has to offer. I was deeply impressed by the initiative to present indigenous culture in so many of its aspects and by the way the challenge had been met.

But I have been slow to put pen to paper to write this blog. I have felt far too overwhelmed by the energy of the people of Huta na Godang: the trust, the caring, the hope, the expectations. When I sat there listening to Pak Restuala’s words, I scarcely knew how to accommodate the lot that life was dealing me. The best in life is not always what we choose. Sometimes, we are chosen by life. Muara now feels like my Batak home and I am tied to it forever, just as the women of Huta na Godang in Muara will always grace the front of my book. 
A last hug from the
indigo dyer.

At the end of the day.

Muara, O Muara.
(All photographs in this post, except those of himself, are by MJA Nashir)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Reviving a Text

Rangsa ni Tonun is a Batak text that I am using as the basis for the film about Batak weaving techniques to premiere at the Fiber Face 3 event in Yogyakarta in February 2011 (see blog The Merapi has Spoken).

It is an oral text, but it was committed to paper, presumably at the behest of Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen (6 February 1834 – 23 May 1918), the German Lutheran missionary who is renowned and revered for establishing the Christian church in the Batak world. Such texts were spoken by datu or traditional knowledge specialists. I found the text in Nommensen’s archive.

Since Nommensen’s day, the works of the datu are considered by the Christianized Batak to be just a little too close to the spirit world that they have been taught is the work of the devil. The art of the datu (hadatuon) went into sharp decline, therefore, during the twentieth century. During my travels, I did not meet a single Batak who knew what “rangsa” means.

Looking up the word in my Batak dictionaries, reading other rangsa texts, finding descriptions of rangsa texts in early publications, and speaking about the word with the great Batak poet, Sitor Situmorang, I have been reminded of the power of words in Batak indigenous thought. The datu was a magician with words. He manipulated them in many ways to influence the spirit world, all the while amazing his audiences, often striking fear in their hearts. His use of words (just part of his large arsenal of trappings) set him apart from “the average person”. Rangsa ni tonun is perhaps best translated as “description of weaving”. However, the word ‘description’ does not do the Batak word 'rangsa' justice. The Batak word is special because it captures the magical, spiritual essence of something, the sacred power of origins. Origins, in indigenous Batak thought, are a font of power. All acts of weaving are descendants, as it were, of the original act, performed by a daughter of the gods as described in this 'description of weaving'.

Before setting off to 'translate' the text using filmic images, I made photocopies of my typed-out version. It is not that I wished to undo the work of Nommensen, but I am a great admirer of indigenous Batak literature, and I feel that the Batak who grow up in the villages today miss out when they do not learn about the rich tradition that is their birthright. It seemed only fair to me to hand out copies of the text to the villagers who clustered around as we worked on the film so that they could see what we were up to. I was thankful that I could tell them that I had found the text in Nommensen’s archives; it gave it a rather ironic stamp of approval.

In Tarutung, I visited the village of Sait ni Huta in the hopes of finding descendants of Guru Sinangga ni Aji, the datu who wrote out the text for Nommensen. I was unsuccessful and the text attracted little interest. It was immediately apparent that the language was difficult for most people, even if Batak (and not Indonesian) was the language in which they operated most easily.

Nobody remembered Guru Sinangga ni Aji
in his village of Sait ni Huta (foto MJA Nashir)

Statue of LI Nommensen in Sait ni Huta (foto MJA Nashir)

  Not altogether unexpected for me was that weavers understood the text better than most other people. This is because of the many weaving terms in the text. One would learn these words only if one had some close association with weaving, e.g. if one’s mother or wife was a weaver or if one wove oneself. Young people had little or no interest in the text while elderly people enjoyed the words that they had not heard for a long time. Many of them pored over the text with rapt attention.

An elderly woman (Ny Pakpahan) in Muara read the text with rapt attention

Her neighbour looked on

The neighbour was pleased when I gave her a copy, too
 We needed a narrator, someone who would read the text for the camera, and it made sense to look for a male narrator because literature, in indigenous Batak life, is part of the male world and the writer of the text was also male. Amongst ritual specialists and those familiar with Batak opera, we did not find a suitable candidate because they stumbled over the words and could not orient themselves to their meaning. We met with success in the village, however. Ompu Okta doli was the husband of one of the weavers who did demonstrations for Nashir’s camera. He was a natural. He remembered the technical words from his youth and from his association with his wife. When I asked him where he learned to orate so well, he revealed that he was often called upon to use the microphone as the Master of Ceremonies at rituals and that he also frequently read in church. He was immediately so taken by the text that he worked on it enthusiastically on his own, adding comma’s, developing cadence, and even catching errors in the transcription. He was a diamond in the rough.

Ompu Okta doli studied the text carefully before he read it in front of the camera

Ompu Okta, husband and wife, "stars" of our film.
(foto MJA Nashir)
When we returned to his village some weeks later, we found the villagers still citing words and phrases from the text with much merriment. The text had begun to live for them.
I can hardly wait to see how people react to the finished film.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

WISDOM Conference in Yogyakarta, 5 – 8 December 2010 and "Back to the Villages" in Java

I was honoured to be invited to speak at the colloquium prior to the WISDOM conference in Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

The colloquium was “In honour of Ann Dunham Soetoro and Prof. Dr. Mubyarto.”  I spoke on Ann Dunham Soetoro’s book, entitled Surviving Against the Odds (Duke University Press, 2009) and used her title as the title of my talk. Ann Soetoro, the late mother of US President Obama, is rightly recognized as a champion of craft producers whose voices have systemically been unrecognized and poorly represented in decision-making processes. In my review of this published and abridged version of her doctoral dissertation, however, I was critical of the exclusively economic slant that left out “the cultural stuff”. The theme of the WISDOM conference was inspiring: “It is important to focus on how local wisdom can thrive in the sea of globalization, and how indeed it can make a significant contribution to humanity’s future.” I was emboldened by it and by the work of Wade Davis (most recently, The Wayfinders, Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, House of Anansi Press, 2009) to make the exclusion of Ann Soetoro’s cultural data the focus of my review. I argued that if we wish to rely on local wisdom, we will first need to ensure that it survives. Download my paper.

In advance of the conference, I visited the village of Kajar where Ann Soetoro did some of her fieldwork.

The perapen or metal workshop had changed little or not at all.
I brought a copy of the recent lavishly republished version of IsaƤc Groneman’s The Javanese Kris (C. Zwartenkot Art Books and KITLV Press, Leiden, 2009). My intent was to bring this 19th century information about the sacred Javanese kris “back to the village” and to compare the return of this information to the return of my own work on Batak weaving. My visit was an exceedingly interesting lesson in contrasts.
There was nobody left in the village of Kajar who made kris. The tradition had died out. I met the son of the kris-maker that Ann Soetoro had known and mentioned in her book.

He was quite old but continued to labour on some simple production metalwork.

While he claimed to have learned how to make kris from his father, what he showed us was so simple and rough that I knew that very little had been handed down to him.

Simple implements lying atop Ann Dunham's book about Kajar village craft.
The Groneman book on The Javanese Kris is lying beside Dunham Soetoro's book.
When I showed him the book, his interest was minimal. I wasn’t able to make him understand that the book was about the Javanese tradition of kris-making; he assumed that krisses were being made in Europe... In the end, I did not even leave a copy of the book behind in the village because I met no interest in the topic whatsoever. This the central reason for my question, relative to Ann Soetoro’s book: what, in fact, is "surviving against the odds"? The zenith of the Javanese metalworking tradition is long past and has been utterly forgotten.
Interest in Ann Soetoro's book, on the other hand, was great. People remembered her, but none of the villagers had seen her book. They loved seeing their fellow-villagers and workshops in the photographs.

In the end, I gave my copy to the family of Pak Sastro with whom Ann had spent the most time. They recognized themselves in many of her photographs.

Pak Sastro's widow and daughter. (I am wearing the "WISDOM T-shirt"!)
The Yogya conference was gracious, superbly well-organized, stimulating and fun. I sang its praises in a note in Facebook. Below are some images of the spectacular performances, most of them by students, to which we were treated periodically during the conference.

The Filmer at Work

In my blog entitled "The Merapi has spoken", I shared with the followers of my blog one of the goals of my journey to Indonesia in November 2010, viz. to produce a film that will premiere during the Fiber Face 3 exhibition 12 - 25 February in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The film is based on the ancient Batak text, Rangsa ni Tonun. This blog is a kind of visual appetizer (that I have already published on Facebook primarily for an Indonesian readership) showing the photographer, MJA Nashir, at work.
Mixing the rice starch.
Starching the warp yarns with the rice starch

Starching the warp yarns
Winding the warp

Weaving (inserting the sword)


Weaving with a pattern shed

Removing pits from the cotton bolls by hand

Adding water to submerge the indigo in the preparation of dye

Mixing the indigo dye

Mixing the indigo dye

The narrator or "the speaker of the ancient text" that is the basis of the film.

Reviewing the take

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A truly innovative new textile - 2 December

Since giving a copy of Legacy to Ir. S. Tambun in Kaban Jahe last June, I have had a few opportunities to chat with him through Facebook. He wasn’t home when I presented the book to his sister and we hoped to meet another time. My visitors from YPBB seemed pleased at the prospect of meeting him and so we dropped in unexpectedly before heading back to Medan on 2 December. Luckily, Ir. Tambun was there.

He received us warmly in the front room where someone else was pulling textiles out of the glass case and showing them to a buyer. It was clear that his textiles were of high quality. I remembered my quandary about giving a book to someone who had a workshop of semi-mechanized looms and ultimately my decision to do so was because of his reputation for reviving old Karo textile motifs and designs.

He was a serious, clearly very dedicated person and immediately explained why it was better to weave on semi-mechanical looms than backstrap looms: you can weave many cloths from one warp (while you have to wind a new warp for each textile woven on a backstrap loom), the weaving goes much faster, the result is regular and standardized without any of the flaws found in backstrap weaving; the semi-mechanical loom has a comb so that the warp is constantly evenly-spaced. When I asked him why he wouldn’t just opt for a mechanized loom, he explained that much of the currently fashionable Batak supplementary-weft patterning had to be inserted by hand and could not be performed using the jacquard system. It was true that the fine yarn and regular weave made his products look and feel better than the backstrap woven, much-flawed variants that he showed us made of coarser yarn.

Of course, I am a strong proponent of backstrap weaving, but not to the exclusion of products on other kinds of looms. What Ir. Tambun showed us underscored, for me, why backstrap weavers should not compete with machines: they will always lose. It is a worst possible scenario: the poor weavers work like mad without any hope of making a decent wage, while the quality of their work declines because they weave too fast. No, I am a proponent of backstrap weaving because of the quality that it can have. No machine or semi-mechanical loom can compete with a Batak weaver of excellence in the old style: someone who takes her time, who executes each step with love and pride, and who yields a product with beautiful irregularities that shows the “hand of the weaver”. Such products are works of art. They are not handwoven versions of mechanized production. The two paths must diverge. The selling prices of the two products must also diverge. Hugely.

I have accepted the decline of Batak weaving as a consequence of the forces of modernization. But I also believe that room must be created for the art product and for weavers working in the traditional fashion with beautiful yarns and earthy colours. The weavers who make such cloths will be much fewer and father between. They will be called ´artists’. Creating the room and support for artistic textile production is, I believe, a social need and responsibility.

All the while, the semi-mechanical “textile industry” may develop in the Batak area with all of my blessings! An environmentally-friendly, weaver-friendly employer of many would only be a boon to this rather economically-depressed area. And the more competitive on the external market, the better! Ir. Tambun showed us beautiful textiles that his workshop made in the “Karo style” and explained that his buying public was limited to those who made purchases for ritual needs because the design of the textiles announced Karo identity. He then pulled out an all-blue textile, of very fine yarn, that did not announce Karo or Batak identity. He showed how it had been inspired by Batak patterns.
The final product, however, had been redesigned so skillfully that it was simply “a lovely cloth”. It reminded me of an Indian khadi cloth that I frequently wear because it of its great versatility and I found myself longing to own this blue cloth made in Kaban Jahe.

I asked Ir. S. Tambun if I could purchase it. He smiled saying that it was a new creation and that, so far, he had only given one to the wife of the Governor of North Sumatra; it had not yet been launched on the market….but that he would like to give me one to thank me for my book, Legacy in cloth! We walked over to the loom where it was being woven and he cut one off for me. I immediately had visions of myself wearing it at the upcoming WISDOM conference in Yogyakarta and stuffed several copies of Ir. Tambun’s business card in my bag. I want to tell people about him and his work!

I am thrilled with his creation. It is the kind of creation that I find appropriate for semi-mechanized weaving. It is rooted in the Batak tradition but has universal appeal and does not compete with traditional cloth. When I wear it, I will feel that I am wearing the future of the commercial textile industry in North Sumatra and the product of a truly clever and innovative designer.

I hope that the industry will develop with much concern for its environmental impact so that it will come to mean far more than just income for participating weavers. Weaving industries are notorious for polluting dyes and noisy working conditions. May this industry encourage health as well as financial well-being for its weavers and owner as it moves towards the future. May the industry become as sustainable as the ancient designs from which it takes its inspiration.

Thank you, Ir. S. Tambun for this beautiful textile that, for me, represents an exciting vision of the future.

P.S. Later, though facebook, Sahat Tambun gave me these details about the textile:
Kain disebut tenunan dobby, terbuat dari bahan full spunsilk ex China, desain sebangun dengan uis julu jongkit (uis Karo), penggunaan multi purpose.
[Translation: The cloth you are referring to is woven with a dobby (mechanism that makes small patterns that are simpler than those made with a jacquard loom); it is made from "full spunsilk from China"; the design is derived from uis julu jongkit (a Karo textile); it has a multi-purpose function.]