Friday, December 16, 2011

Genealogical Riddle Solved

As the strange ways of luck and synchronicity would have it, not too long ago, on the very same day and at the very same moment, I received emails from two unrelated people both offering me the complete overview of the descendants of Elize van Zuylen-Niessen. Both were responding to my blogs about Pekalongan in which I scratched my head and wondered out loud about my genealogical connections with Elize, the remarkable and famous batik maker in Northern Java.
Photo by MJA Nashir
Sandra Niessen holding up a batik made by
Eliza van Zuylen Niessen

Both thought that I might be a descendant but I knew that this was not the case and that I would have to dig much further back, before the birth of Elize’s father. One of my correspondents was able to tell me enough about Elize’s father’s family that I could finally make the connection. The great grandfather of Elize’s father’s was also my ancestor, a man called Wijnand Niessen, born in 1712 in Hundshoven, The Netherlands.

In the 18th century, the enterprising son of Wijnand Niessen, named Dionicius, left home and settled in Buren further north. For generations his branch of the family, from which I hail, lived along the Lek/Rhine river leading to Rotterdam. Elize’s father’s people stayed in the region around Heerlen, Sittard and Hundshoven. Her father, Matthias Nicolaas (the spelling varies), after a long stay in the Netherlands East Indies, returned to the region of his youth where he died.

Elize van Zuylen-Niessen’s father, Matthias Nicolaas Niessen, was a KNIL (Royal Dutch-East Indies Army) officer who received a military medal called the Willemsorde. He fought in Bali in 1849, in Borneo in 1850 and Riau (Sumatra) in 1858 and 1959. He was then Luitenant.

Elize’s mother, Elisabeth Christina Anna Geertruida von Ranzow, was the fourth generation of the Von Ranzow family to live in the East. Her great great grandfather sailed for Ceylon from Germany. Two generations of his descendants lived on that VOC Island, but her father was born on board ship heading towards Batavia. His mother was a “princess” from Palembang.

In other words, aside from a common last name, probably half of The Netherlands, to say nothing of a certain family in Palembang, is as closely related to Elize van Zuylen Niessen as I am. There are 6 generations between myself and the ancestor that Elize and I have in common. Moreover, Wijnand, our common ancestor, married twice; she descends from the second wife while I descend from the first. Very distant family indeed. Nevertheless, it is always nice to have an illustrious family member; I enjoy feeling a personal attachment to her life and times in Indonesia.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Gave a Teg Talk!

No, that’s not a spelling error. TEG stands for Textile Enthusiasts Group and the group gathers in Singapore.

It was Genevieve Duggan, well known for her book, Ikats of Savu (2001, White Lotus Press) who got the ball rolling. I was going to drop in for a day in Singapore on my way home from Jakarta anyway, so, she said, why not get to know the textile enthusiasts in Singapore while I was there? Why not, indeed! I would have my exhibition textiles with me, and the co-ordinator of this TEG event, Shook Fong Tan, and her husband would be kind enough to pick me (with my heavy bags) up at the airport.

Photo by Lewa Pardomuan of me delivering my TEG Talk
The obvious thing to talk about, it seemed to me, would be the Pulang Kampung expedition and the upshot of the journey. I had all of MJA Nashir’s pictures with me to make a slide show and one of Restuala Namora Pakpahan’s first “revival textiles” from Muara coloured red with natural dye. He gave it to me just before I left Jakarta to remind me that I am the “International Ambassador of Sopo Sorha Harungguan”. I wanted to highlight the importance of bringing research findings back to the peoples from whom the information originated: they who are so deserving, have so little access to libraries and knowledge about their own culture and history, and yet are more often than not forgotten when it comes to “dissemination of findings”.

It was a warm group of enthusiasts (the name fits!), many of whom clearly had a very sophisticated level of knowledge. Spontaneously, I asked them for support for Restuala’s revival work. I had shared with them the importance of North-South partnerships when it comes to keeping indigenous art/craft traditions alive, so I decided to “walk the talk.” The donations that flowed in were so generous that I was gratified and touched.

I was pleased that Lewa Pardomuan, a new acquaintance and passionate textile collector, was in the room as well as Kim Jane Saunders (author of Contemporary Tie and Dye Textiles of Indonesia, 1997) with whom I had apparently corresponded in years past. A new acquaintance was Yvonne Koh, who contacted me through my website shortly before my talk. Because she lived in Singapore, it was possible for her to attend. She turns out to be an inveterate blogger, so I have been able to get to know her a little bit after the fact. These three people, and many more in the room, shared my sense of urgency for undertaking action to keep indigenous weaving traditions alive.

The TEG group kindly arranged for me to pre-view the spectacular Patterns of Trade: Indian Textiles For Export, 1400–1900 exhibition (15 Nov 2011 - 03 Jun 2012) in the Asian Civilizations Museum just after my talk. The tour with the Southeast Asia curator, David Henkel, was a rather special privilege as the exhibition had not yet opened. Indeed, I would not have wanted to miss it. It was inspiring, spell-binding and endlessly insightful to witness dozens of Indian trade textiles together in one place.

At the end of the day, Digna Ryan, one of the co-ordinators of the TEG group, invited some of us to dinner in her beautiful home: a gracious and delicious send-off before settling into a night of flying.

Thank you, TEG Singapore for an excellent experience.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Setting up Sopo Sorha

The decline of Batak culture is not sitting well with me. Not at all. I see it most clearly from the vantage point of the weaving arts. Yes, there are still weavers. People can point to them and say, “See, the weaving craft in the batak area is still alive.” But I see something different: the most skilled and advanced manipulations of the loom have been forgotten; the social rules enforcing quality have been forgotten; most of the motifs have been forgotten; weavers have been forced by the market to adopt a division of labour and their weaverly knowlddge has narrowed. When the oldest generation passes away, the sophisticated knowledge of one of the richest and most beautiful weaving traditions in the archipelago will have disappeared, even though there may still be a few weavers left, toiling over their South Sumatran look-alike textiles that are the only ones truly viable on the market.

Restuala Namora Pakpahan’s Sopo Sorha Harungguan in the bay of Muara, where the weavers are trying to revive the weaving arts, is a precious oasis of cultural truth in the cultural sahel. The weavers there are keen to weave the cloths that they admire and that their ancestors wove. They are being aided by staff from YPBB, who are helping them recover their natural dye recipes. Before I left Indonesia, Restuala presented me with a textile, just freshly cut out of the loom, completely dyed with Morinda citrifolia, the indigenous Batak red colour. I was overwhelmed by this expression of hope.

I agree with Restuala’s initiative and goals. He has asked me to be the Foreign Ambassador of Sopo Sorha Harungguan and I have agreed to accept this posting and all of the responsibilities that it entails. I have been "in-vested" and his red natural-dyed textile is my cloak of ermine.

My horses are galloping away in front of me. I envision the following:

• the construction of a sustainable weaving centre that will provide an example of future architecture with a minimal ecological footprint

• purchase and storage of excellent collections of textiles to use as templates for the weavers

• conservation training programs for young people so that they can look after their collections

• curatorial training for young people so that they can learn how to develop high quality exhibitions

• record and revive techniques on the brink of extinction by organizing workshops with the last remaining practitioners of the techniques

• facilties for people who want to come (from afar) to learn weaving

• write children’s books about weaving

• facilities to organize and participate in a wider textile community: nationwide, ASEAN, or Worldwide (Indigenous Weavers Unite!); they can learn from each other and stimulate each other

• develop natural dyes

• develop marketing programs

• develop language training programs

• translate Legacy in cloth into Indonesian and/or Batak

• development of an annual prize to highlight the extraordinary accomplishment of a Batak weaver or weaver-champion.

I am looking for sponsors: local corporations that are active in the Batak area and want to “give something back”, individuals who want “to make a difference in the world”, granting programs, existing organizations that would like to support these initiatives. Where there is a will, there is a way.

O Tano Batak

Back in The Netherlands. Home after 2 months in Indonesia. It is not yet clear what my next step will be. My mind is crowded by the possible projects I envision. I feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. The alarming statistics about the decline and loss of human cultures were once only statistics. During this last trip to Asia, they froze my heart as I witnessed the desertification of the Batak homelands. Desertification because the villages are being deserted; many have become lonely and desolate; Desertification because the villages have becomes resource deserts: no knowledge, no vibrancy, no future and, worst of all, nobody who cares.

This is Tano Batak today, physically one of the most spectacular places on Planet Earth: stunning nature surrounding an indescribably beautiful crater lake. What stands out is the merciless need for the remaining inhabitants to run after a few pennies to survive. That there are no garbage systems as a result of which the plastic of decades is cumulatively decorating but not beautifying the landscape. Opulent mausoleums built to the ancestors represent almost the only influx of capital from migrant Bataks. Tano Batak is becoming a burial ground. A place of refuse. The contrast is painful. From a vantage point overlooking Lake Toba, the heart misses a beat. The landscape is so generous. It gives its all. Down below, the culture has become so stingy, grasping, needy -- and it is eroding the natural bounty. O Tano Batak, indeed! The memories of past history, social rules and ceremonies, indigenous crafts (the mouthpieces of thought systems), all have almost entirely disappeared. How often have young people said to me, “How can I love my culture if I don’t know anything about it?” There is nothing there anymore to teach them to love their history and culture.

Culturelessness, a state that is being encouraged by TV commercials and malls, is a social time bomb. A people that is rootless and without social norms and rules that can be enforced is vulnerable. They can fall prey to further agents of destruction: substance addictions, extremism and intolerance of thought, inability to take responsibility.

This crisis is as great as the current global economic crisis. Where are the sage heads bowing over this problem and working feverishly on solutions? The solutions need to be found in our generation.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Lasma Sitanggang

After leaving the home of the last bulang weaver, it was simply a matter of turning a corner and driving up a narrow path to get to the home of the bulang weaver depicted in Legacy in cloth. The welcome that I received was extraordinarily warm. We were invited into their home where after exchanging pleasantries we talked about Nashir’s book and showed them a copy of it.
Lasma Sitanggang was one of the several young women in the room. When she came and sat down beside me, she confided that she wanted to learn to weave. I was surprised. Until then, I had only heard from young people that they did NOT want to learn to weave because it was too difficult and didn’t pay. From Lasma, I received such a clear and thoughtful answer about the importance of continuing her culture and the work of her ancestors that I asked Nashir to film it. Before the camera, her answer was just as lucid, detailed and even more extensive.

When she was finished and Nashir had put the camera down, she asked if she could tell me more. She confided that she had been selected to compete for a university scholarship, but had failed to make the final selection. She recounted bravely, but the emotions got the better of her and she broke down and sobbed bitter regretful tears on my shoulder. She was a bright, beautiful, articulate young woman with an open and engaging smile. She had lost the future that she dreamed of and felt estranged from her friends who all went off to university without her. She had no money to pay for a university education and she was doing her best to accept her fate with grace. She showed me her hands and said that she was not afraid to work hard in the fields. She would be stuck in the village, probably for the rest of her life.

I found her pain difficult to watch and decided on the spot to give her a copy of Nashir’s book because it would support her in her resolve to explore the knowledge of the ancestors. Nashir and I both expressed our belief that there are valuable forms of knowledge that are not taught at university and we pledged to bring her in touch with people who could support her on her journey to explore the Simalungun weaving tradition.

How strange and wonderful it was to have this happen around the corner from the old woman whose loom was lost amidst the broken-down motorcycles and becaks.

This morning, I shared the story by phone with Restuala Namora in Muara and Jean Howe (Threads of Life) in Bali. Both were receptive and supportive of Lasma Sitanggang. I hope that this remarkable meeting has satisfying follow-up for all concerned. Some employees of Threads of Life will be in Sumatra at the end of November. My heart and thoughts will be with Lasma. I hope that her future will be bright.

Sadness in Si Hotang

There is a house in SiHotang. And a rice barn. Both are elaborately carved. They are praised and depicted in an early 20th century publication about the Netherlands East Indies. These magnificent Batak architectural accomplishments were one of the foremost reasons why the Batak poet Sitor Situmorang brought me to visit the valley in 1980. I later spent a few days in that same village inhabited by his relatives. Some pictures that I took of the house are published in my dissertation (1985). They were the reason why I wanted to bring Nashir to Sihotang in 2011. Also to visit Ompu Borsak whom I had missed in June 2010 during the Back to the Villages project.

When I visited in 1980, Darwin was there, Ompu Borsak’s youngest son. He was younger than I, a gentle, gracious fellow, shy and kind. I never saw him again. When I returned in 2010, he was dying. I spoke to him briefly on the telephone but by the time I got to Pangururan, he had passed away.

At last we found his village. There was garbage strewn everywhere. The majestic house and rice barn were now anything but majestic. There was junk lying around the buildings, the carcasses of attempts to make a living. A clumsy attempt had been made to touch up the paint on the walls and it had only succeeded in making the building garish and inconsistent. The once-proud village square was now overgrown with weeds and the stone walls had also become home to messy shrubs. It was like a desert.

There was one woman in the village, a widow with a child living in a crumbling house across from the once-magnificent pieces of architecture. I went up to her and learned that Ompu Borsak had fallen and was now living with another son (the one to which I had given Legacy when I was not able to reach her last year) in Pangururan. I asked her what had happened to Darwin. She responded scornfully. “Oh, he drank himself to death. That is what all the men do around here.”

We left SiHotang silently. I began to formulate an image of Darwin, the youngest son and required by adat to stay in the village. I imagined him day in day out, year in year out in this village of former glory (his great grandfather had been a regional leader), being able to recite his mother’s stories about his great and gracious ancestors. I imagined him unable to find employment, unable to make something of his life and everyday staring out at a Batak house fading and declining. I imagined Darwin fading and declining with the house. Perhaps the attempts to spruce it up had been his. Half-hearted, unskilled, hopeless.

Darwin is now buried just behind the house. Even in death he will forever remain in this village which could not nurture him. Those “left behind” in the villages have little future or hope. “O Tano Batak” is being hollowed out.

Without the Income from Weaving

I gazed around Mamak Si Dirita’s house with admiration. ‘You are doing so well,” I said. ´Your house is very nice and your children are beautiful and healthy. When I first me you in 1986, you were very poor and your clothing was torn. (I showed her pages 495 and 496 in Legacy where she is depicted) You were harried and distraught at the time. Things have gotten better for you.”

To my great surprise, Mamak Si Dirita burst into tears. “It hurts me so much to remember that time, she said. My husband had fallen sick and I did everything that I could for his health. There is not a clinic or hospital that he has not seen the inside of. All of my children were very young and I had to make ends meet with my weaving and my agricultural work. Eventually my husband got better but it was a difficult time. It hurts to think about it.” The poor dear could not stop weeping. Her tears told me about the depth of her pain. I was sorry that I had opened it up. She and I shuddered to think what would have become of her without the income from weaving.

Now her eldest daughter has a bakery in the back of the house and they make delicious sweet breads for sale. Her husband and she are both healthy. Their eldest daughter will marry next month and their house is new, spacious and relatively comfortable.

There was no social safety net when she fell upon her hard times. Weaving was her only regular source of cash besides the one or two harvests. I have often referred to that photograph of her weaving a bulang to demonstrate the poverty of the weavers, but I had not known until this visit just how desperate her straits had been. What do people today rely on? Now weaving is more costly than helpful.

The Last Simalungun Weaver

Simalungun was on the agenda for 20 October when we left our gracious hosts at DEL University. Every Batak region is special in its own way. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Simalungun, but enough to know that the crisis in the weaving tradition is very serious. During the opening of our textile exhibition, I wore a Simalungun textile because there were no Simalungun weavers represented in the exhibit. During the Back to the Villages project I had only seen one elderly weaver. Our meeting was fleeting. Now I wanted to find her and also the former bulang weaver depicted in Legacy and to whom I had given a copy of Legacy in cloth. I wanted to give Nashir a chance to work his magic there with his camera.

It was a wet, grey, cold day. First we found the elderly woman. I had not remembered that she lived in a vehicle repair shop. Literally. Now it is something that I will never forget. There were vehicles in various states of decomposition strewn around the yard and when I knocked on the door and peered into the house, I saw that the front room was being used as a garage. I wondered how anybody could call premises like those a home. I recognized the spot under the too-skimpy front eaves as the place where I had seen her weaving last year. The thin piece of plywood on which she sat and the little bench that she used to support her sword while weaving were still there. I then wondered whether that little bundle wrapped in cloth might be her loom. What shocked me most was that somebody had parked his motorcycle on top of that little piece of wood, but how would he recognize this as a place to weave? Imagining how the weaver must feel, I felt angry and hurt and tried to distance myself from these feelings to recognize the situation for what it was: the last weaver whose work and tradition was clearly not valued or respected. It was being crowded out by the more pressing business of her son’s vehicle repair shop. Probably his work brought in more money. This is the way a weaving tradition ends, I told myself.

The elderly woman appeared and at my urging unwrapped her bundle (after the man moved his motorcycle) and resumed weaving her bright red bulang.

Her son, a gentle, shy fellow with greasy black fingers, came and sat down beside us. He had seen the copy of Legacy that I had left with their neighbour and was curious about my interest in Batak cloth. He was aware that his mother was the last weaver of bulang textiles in the district, but not aware of its significance. I tried to impress upon him the age, complexity and uniqueness of her work and how highly I valued it. His response was a look of surprise, puzzlement, reflection. I thought that I detected some deep awareness that she was enacting an ancient tradition, but this may have been wishful thinking on my part. He seemed to display some shame or embarrassment about his lack of respect for her work.

I told him about Nashir’s book and how it was Nashir’s intent to raise awareness of what is happening to indigenous Indonesian culture. He thumbed through it; he was curious about its contents but he said that he could not afford the $10 that it cost. I told him to just give us what he could afford and I would be happy to subsidize the purchase because I really wanted him to have it. Planting another seed?

I gave him a gift of a Dutch handkerchief which he was delighted to immediately tie around his head. He and all of the men in his repair shop seemed happy and honoured by our visit. I gave his mother a crocheted doily explaining that it was the craft of a Dutch grandmother. She was mystified by the gift because she couldn’t imagine what it could be used for. There really wasn’t a place for such an item in a motorcycle repair shop.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Banun and Kadir

In 1922 a remarkable man was born in Pekalongan. He was a joyful man who loved a challenge. When he became old, he joked to his son that he would like to swap ages because he was still so very full of the possibilities of life. The 89 years that he was allotted were too short for him. In his home where his daughter continues to lives, there is a cartoon of him hanging on the wall. Beside his head, in big letters, a single word that characterizes his life is written: “THINK”.
Kadir's son and daughter in their ancestral home.
Kadir was a conservationist and recycler before his time and he was unstymied. If materials were not available, he found substitutes. If quantities of available materials were becoming a nuisance or going to waste, he found ways to make them useful. Similarly if peoples’ talents were going to waste, he found a way to deploy them. If he was stuck with a technical problem, he turned himself loose on his library, and let the people in his surroundings apply themselves to the problem to see if their collective thought could yield a solution.

furniture made with water hyacinths
He was an inventor, engineer, intellectual and socially engaged. And he had a weaving factory. He had no use for patents. For him, the joy in life was in meeting problems creatively and sharing solutions, allowing the intellect to bubble and spread and not to be defensive. He learned how to make and weave pineapple, banana, abaca fiber and water hyacinths.  
None of these materials are new today, but he was the first in his region to make use of them.  He transformed waste newspapers into weft and he batikked towels. He also invented a remarkable technique that he called “banun” that collapses batik (the “ba” part of the word) and tenun (the Indonesian name given to woven unbatikked cloth, the “nun” part of the word).

The technique works like this. First a length of cloth is woven. A pattern is then wax-drawn, as though to make a batik, onto the finished cloth. The cloth is then dyed, dried and unwoven. Then the batik-dyed warp is re-woven with a new weft. This is why Kadir’s son and daughter explained to me that the cloth was “woven twice”. Why would one go to so much effort when it would be just as easy to ikat pattern the warp yarns? Moreover, there would be no waste in the form of discarded weft. “Because people here are willing to weave, but they are not willing to tie ikat patterns” was the response. The technique coincides with a social circumstance.

unwoven warp up to the not yet unwoven part
Because I was not able to conceive of “unweaving” a cloth and how the unwoven warp is put on the loom, I was taken into the back room where the looms were in use. Only part of the cloth is initially unwoven. The rest is rolled up the way a warp would be rolled on the warp beam. The ends of the warp are installed in the weaving mechanism and then weaving proceeds as normal. Weft is removed as more warp is needed. The process is not particularly cunning. It is simply yanked out of the cloth.

Batak textile "fake" made by Kadir's children
In the course of our conversation, I learned that Kadir was also the source of the “fake” ship cloths that were made at the end of the last century. It was an inventive process in which he even revived hand-spinning in Pekalonan. “The cloths were ’saleable’ for a little while and then the market for them disappeared and he stopped making them” I was told. I remember when people were just learning that “fake shipcloths” were on the market and they had to be warned that they were not purchasing “the real thing”. My visit to Kadir’s home taught me great respect for the inventiveness needed to make such “fakes”. Indeed, the history of cloth could well be framed in terms of inventiveness inspired by novelty. 

Striking Gold

It is easy to imagine the Pekalongan of yesteryear when the Dutch were still here. There are still so many of their buildings: the home and office of the Resident, the “societeit” (soos) where they used to gather to satisfy their social needs, the church and so on. The city centre, now a huge traffic circle built around a park, is still intact; it must have made a glorious and majestic impression.

The newly-furbished excellent Pekalongan Museum is in an old VOC building. The floors are original, so are the ceilings. Even the bars over the windows of the room where the money was imprisoned are still there. 

The curator, Zahir, came up to me with his black eyes flashing mystically and said, “The money is still here. Perhaps the Dutch hid it under the floor.” I disabused him of his fantasy. “The walls of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam are decorated with gold purchased with colonial money,” I said. Zahir was only partly joking, however. He is intensely aware of the “value added” of the beautiful museum building. Precisely its authenticity, that it has been maintained but not overhauled, means that the building has a particular aura, like a whiff of something that half awakens a memory that cannot be defined. “This building is gold,” said the perceptive and articulate Zahir. “In any other building, this museum would be so much less.”

Alas, the home and workshop of Eliza van Zuylen have been demolished.

Zahir was captivating. His passion for batik was almost palpable. While I stood gazing at a beautiful copy of a Van Zuylen batik with pastel colours, he came up to me and his black eyes started to flash again in that mysterious way. “All of the original Van Zuylen batiks have been bought up by collectors outside the country. The batiks are now unaffordable. We have none left here in Pekalongan. Maybe there are a few in private homes, but the museum has none.” In a nutshell, Zahir had expressed one of the great ironies of this grand Kota Batik (City of Batik).

The next day, my host Arif Dirhamzah, took me to the computer office of a friend, named Zakaria. He teaches batik producers to access international markets using the internet. We sat at the screen of one of his computers and mas Arif showed me the photographs of Pekalongan batiks that he had found on the KITLV website. There were several from the Vlisco collection in The Netherlands, so we shifted to their website, and then I showed them the on-line collection of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. At one point Arif stopped when he found the name of a local producer in the documentation of a cloth. “Who is that person again?” he asked his friend. Zakaria reacted with amazement and peered at the cloth. “That was my grandfather,” he said and started to recite the names of several generations of his family. As we were about to leave, Zakaria said, “With this visit, I feel like I have struck gold. I cannot tell you how much this discovery means to me.” “Keep going with your discovery of museum collections,” I said. “There are more people in Pekalongan who will get that same feeling when they see the cloths of their ancestors. Perhaps you have struck gold in more than one way. Think of what your computer can mean to all descendants!”

Arif organized a dinner party around my visit. It took place in the gracious home of Bapak and Ibu Fatchiyah, a large Pekalongan batik producers. Mas Arif invited a remarkable collection of people who could offer memories or insights into the Van Zuylen batiks. Some brought textiles from their homes to show and I saw how deftly the people unfurled them and held them up, how they spoke the same language when discussing the cloths, how admiring their were of good designs. Again and again there were expressions of regret that the Van Zuylen pieces had been almost entirely bought up by people living outside the city and the country. There was little tangible evidence on which to rest their conflicting claims about Van Zuylen colour, dyes and designs. “Outside Indonesia, the collections are complete,” they said over and over again.

At the end of the evening it was my turn to say a few words. “We stand at the beginning of a new era,” I said. “The past was the era of collecting. Now is the era of sharing. The Tropenmuseum and other museums may have many textiles but these textiles do not live the way that I have seen them living here tonight. They are stored carefully, however, so that they will last. They are a priceless resource that can be consulted. They are a public resource. In this age of internet access is no longer as challenging as it used to be. I hope that you will think of them as your own collections. You can “revive” those museum collections lying “dead” in their storage chambers and make them live again, just like the cloths in this room. These collections are pots of gold waiting to be mined by you.

Looking for Eliza

Upon our first meeting, mas Arif said that he wished to know how I was tied by kinship to Eliza van Zuylen. I countered in the same way: I wish to know my kinship tie with Eliza van Zuylen. We looked at each other and laughed. I am from Holland and I am looking for a family member who lived in Pekalongan. Arif lives in Pekalongan and longs for archives stored in Holland so that he can learn about his city’s history.

Living in Oosterbeek, I know what it is to be “without archives”. Our town hall was destroyed during the Battle of Arnhem. I believe that the great numbers of avid local historians in the town were spawned by the absence of those archives. We are all trying to bridge that gap that separates us from the pre-war era. This is the way in which I understood Arif’s and Zahir’s reference to the lack of information about their buildings and streets. What was the Pekalongan in the colonial era that is still so present in the streets? Suddenly I became aware of what a great luxury it is to be able to access the Dutch colonial archives. I believe that lack of this kind of access inspires a particular kind of longing and disorientation. There needs to be a large, carefully planned effort to transfer information from The Netherlands to the former Netherlands East Indies so that the people here can explore/ interpret/ construct their past. Indonesia is ripe for this. Over-ripe.

I am here in Pekalongan as the guest of the Pekalongan Heritage Community, a group of citizens committed to making the most of the gigantic potential of Pekalongan’s history. Mrs. Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen is an historical figure in Pekalongan who has gained world-wide attention for her signed batiks. I have my name to thank for this extraordinary invitation.

Now we have found each other. We each have access to what the other does not have. During my three days here, mas Arif showed me Pekalongan’s enormous strengths. Now it is up to me to go back to Holland and accumulate information that can be meaningful for them.

The past three days I have been examining the hopes that they have pinned on me from many angles. I would like to develop a project proposal that is mutually satisfying and beneficial. Not just a research project, but a project that demonstrates that I have learned from the Back to the Villages project and thus places the needs of batik producers, rather than researchers, front and centre. Then I will feel that I have truly left the ivory tower behind.

Pekalongan received me very warmly. I sense a longing here to have the real Eliza van Zuylen walk through the door and begin talking about her life, take them on a tour of the city as it once was, hold up her batiks and explain them.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Kedungwuni, Nashir said, is where his grandmother used to live and where he was born. I love the sound of the word Kedungwuni and since hearing about the place I have formed an image of a sleepy little batik village. For me, the villages are the nicest part of Indonesia.

Yesterday Nashir borrowed a motorbike and two helmets and off we went to the village of his ancestors and his beginnings.

I prepared myself for the inevitable gap between the “sleepy batik village” of my imagination and the present-day reality with lots of traffic and noise. I was still surprised, however, when Nashir turned into a driveway of a lovely Dutch colonial house with rounded arches. This was where his grandmother lived and where he was born. Family members still lived there. We sipped tea with them before Nashir took me on a guided tour of the house.

I enjoyed the contrast between the colonial, Dutch appearance of the front of the house and the industrious Javanese appearance of the back of it where life used to really unfold. Intermediate between the two was a square concrete section with low concrete walls and skylight where Nashir’s grandmother together with her employees used to do their batik work. Her presence there is still strong because a sketch of her, drawn by Nashir, presides over it.

The back used to have a dirt floor. This is where Nashir’s afterbirth is buried, following Javanese custom, thus making his attachment to the place eternal. Now it has a cement floor. He showed me the section where the chickens were kept when they came home to roost. There was the kitchen where his grandmother prepared packages of food for everybody in the morning, wrapped up in banana leaves. “Everybody always had enough to eat” said Nashir admiringly about his grandmother. There was also the section where Nashir’s uncle began his clothing business.

Nashir’s uncle was next on our agenda. He still has a thriving clothing business transforming batik into wearable goods, now in his own large house with its clean, calm and bright front and industrious back section.

To appease our rumbling stomachs, his wife took us a few steps down the road to a warung where delicious, traditional vegetarian Javanese food is prepared and packaged in banana leaves. Food is an item of local pride. The people here talk about it so much that they may as well be French! And Nashir’s mother would be the leading chef because I have tasted nothing as excellent as her cooking.

After we were sated, Nashir’s uncle led us to the famous Oey Soe Tjoen batik workshop. We were warmly and generously received by a young woman who is taking over the business from her parents. It was an opportunity to enquire about Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen.

The Oey Soe Tjoen workshop began in 1925. During the war all of their patterns were lost. Samples were gradually recovered, however, and now about 100 traditional possibilities may be commissioned by shoppers. They are presented in a fat photo album. The industry continues in the traditional spirit. The young woman showed us a modern batik that she has invented with biblical scenes. She is allowed to sign her name to this batik and thus the available stock of patterns continues to grow. (Recently, a Japanese person contacted the family to write the history of this famous workshop. He took all of the photographs and records back with him to Japan and nothing more has been heard of him since. They suspect he was a victim of the tsunami.)

In response to my questions about Eliza van Zuylen, the young woman called her mother from the back (where the workshop is still found although most batiks are now made in the homes of the batik-makers). Her mother married into the family in 1971, coming from Yogyakarta and so had little personal experience or memory of Van Zuylen, and then just of her successor who returned to The Netherlands in the 1970’s. (Eliza Niessen died in 1947.) She did disabuse me of a false impression that there may have been cooperation between Van Zuylen’s workshop and the Oey Soe Tjoen workshop. Apparently, they all worked independently.

Harmen Veldhuisen’s book entitled, Batik Belanda 1840 – 1940, which I do not yet own but which I was allowed to thumb through a little more while visiting Oey Soe Tjoen, provided me with the most important clues for follow-up family research: Eliza’s father was a soldier in the KNIL (Royal Dutch Indonesian Army). He came from Roermond and he was stationed in Fort de Kock where Eliza was born. With hard facts like dates, and names of people and places I can move forward. When I get back home, a visit to the Bronbeek Museum library, where there are many KNIL records, I will be able to take another step in the search for my link with Eliza Niessen Van Zuylen.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Batik, Batak, Batak, Batik

Last night MJA Nashir’s mother showed me her old batiks: one from Cirebon and the rest from Pekalongan, beautiful old batiks as they are seldom, if ever, made anymore.

We had just arrived from Yogyakarta. I hadn’t been to Pekalongan since 1980. At that time I fell in love with the colourful batiks that are typical of here. MJ de Raadt-Appell’s book (in Dutch) entitled De Batikkerij Van Zuylen te Pekalongan, was published in that same year but I didn’t find out about it until considerably later when both Rita Bolland and Harmen Veldhuisen asked me if I was related to Eliza van Zuylen Niessen to whom De Raadt Appell had dedicated her book. I had never heard family stories about her, and knew of no family members except my uncle who had been to Indonesia. I did not believe that I was related to this talented and now-famous woman.

Eliza Charlotte Niessen was born on 23 November 1864 in Fort de Kock (now Bukit Tinggi in West Sumatra), a century and six days before I was born. She married Alphons van Zuylen from Pekalongan. Her sister Christine married Jan van Zuylen, his brother. Christine moved to Pekalongan and one of her sources of income was a small batik workshop. When, in due course, Eliza and her family also moved to Pekalongan she helped her sister with the batik. Eventually, she started to produce it on her own turf. Eliza gave birth to twelve children. She was widowed in 1918 at the age of 54 and the war put an abrupt and ugly end to her batik workshop. It was plundered and destroyed by the Indonesian freedom fighters and she and her daughter Clementine were imprisoned. When Eliza became ill, they were transferred to the Franciscan monastery in Pekalongan. She died there in 1947 at the age of 83 and her remains were buried beside those of her husband in Pekalongan’s European cemetery.

Eliza Niessen’s workshop was one of the most famous of its time. Her signed batiks have become collectors’ items. Harmen Veldhuisen has written eloquently about them and Rita Bolland, former curator of textiles at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, wrote the Foreword to De Raadt Appell’s book.

Thirty years after shrugging off their question about kinship with Eliza Niessen I started to do genealogical research to find out whether my black eyes originated in Indonesia. I found some records about Niessen ancestors going off to the Netherland East Indies, but I do not know what became of them. I did enough research, however, to conclude that all of the Dutch Niessens are related.

The subject of Eliza Niessen re-emerged when I met MJA Nashir, my photographer and now author of the newly-launched book about our journey together in 2010 (Berkelana dengan Sandra, 2011). His mother was a batik maker who worked for a Van Zuylen competitor, Oey Soe Tjoen. With this surprising information I was compelled to return to the famous Niessen of batik….hence this short pilgrimage to Pekalongan.

Last night was special because Nashir showed his mother his book for the first time, just as she showed me her batiks. Nashir has gone from batik to Batak. I have gone, ever so briefly from Batak to batik and it all came together around the living-room table.

In the meantime, in the heart of Batakland, our friend Restuala Namora, the central figure in the revival of Batak textiles, has just launched Nashir’s book at a gathering of government people. In a week’s time, Batak and batik will once again mingle when he weds his love from Solo. Batik-making is among her many accomplishments.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Come to our exhibition!

On September 22, our exhibition about the Back to the Villages project will open at 19.30. We are thrilled that Erasmus Huis in Jakarta agreed to this exhibition. It will include textiles by weavers depicted in my book, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia and photographs of the Back to the Villages project.

MJA Nashir has just finished the poster for the exhibition. Here it is!

If you can make it to our exhibition, please do come! Also to the opening night which will be concluded with the delicious, traditional Erasmus Huis meal.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Nashir's Egg

August 6, 2011. It is an important day. MJA Nashir has finished his book about the Pulang Kampung project which I initiated last June. He was the project filmer/photographer and it has been my blessing that the project entered his heart. In his book he has documented every step of our journey in colourful and compelling detail, the most important travelogue in both of our lives. It is entitled Berkelana dengan Sandra, Menyusuri Ulos Batak.

Today Nashir leaves his home in Pekalongan and travels to Yogyakarta where he will work out the last details of the editing and also the layout and printing of the book. The published version is due to be launched at the opening of our exhibition about Proyek Pulang Kampung in Erasmus Huis, Jakarta, on September 22. Just a short 6 weeks away.

MJA Nashir’s book represents a year of dedicated, single-minded effort. He has worked non-stop, producing chapter after chapter, 18 in all. He has worked idealistically, driven by his need to share his vision with his readers, fellow Indonesians. He has a message. His book will convince every reader of the importance of keeping cultural heritage alive.

Nashir has earned no income during the time that he has written the book. He has run entirely on his inner resources. They are clearly vast and powerful. He is a man who lives by his principles because life for him would otherwise be faded and unhappy.

I wish MJA Nashir Godspeed. A special, intensely deserving person on a landmark mission.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I've got mail!

I’m one of those people who turns on the computer first thing in the morning. Because of the time difference between Holland and Indonesia, my Indonesian news often arrives in the night. This morning I was overjoyed to find an email from Restuala Namora. He wrote a short email in his usual modest style, but it was still possible to discern excitement and pride between the lines. There was also an attachment: a photograph of his beautiful mother holding up a blue Batak textile with red sides. Both colours, wrote Restuala, were from natural dyestuffs. He said that textile revival was well underway in Muara and that his motto is “Nothing is impossible”.

A bintang maratur textile made in Muara with all natural dyestuffs
 Muara is located in the bay in the southwest corner of Lake Toba. This is the headquarters of what remains of the production of the blue Batak textiles: the sibolang, surisuri, bolean and bintang maratur. (The textile that was just woven was a bintang maratur.) My happy visit there in 1986 yielded the photo of weavers that is now found on pages 10 and 11 of Legacy in cloth. It is one of my favourite photos and so I earmarked it for years as the frontispiece of my book. Little did I know that some of those same weavers would later become active in the revival of Batak weaving in Muara.

Muara is also the bay that hosted the “weaving workshop” in October 2010 that I just couldn’t miss. When I heard about it, I made every effort to attend. Restuala Pakpahan was the engine behind this workshop and when he learned that I would be able to come, he transformed it into a celebration of me as the author of Legacy, one of the sources of his inspiration. During the workshop, he asked me to function as the foreign ambassador for Muara textiles and Muara’s intention to re-invent itself as a Batak settlement for the future: clean, prosperous, in harmony with nature, and a place where Batak culture can revive, survive and thrive.

The workshop was one of the most profoundly moving experiences in my life.

Shortly after that, I brought three members of Threads of Life to Muara. Restuala was hungry for information about natural dyes and strategies for reviving textile traditions while Threads of Life was looking for potential places in the Batak area where they could work their magic. It was a good match and a meeting of like minds. Every night the members of Threads of Life talked until the wee hours with Restuala and his right-hand man, Goodman Ompusunggu, juxtaposing Restuala’s vision with the experiences of Threads of Life. Since then, Threads of Life has been back to conduct step two in the revival of Batak natural dyes. The picture of the textile that Restuala sent me through the email today was the first product of their inspiring collaboration.

I expect that that textile will soon be on a plane heading to Bali. A group of Batak weavers has been selected to attend a series of workshops put on by Threads of Life in Ubud. There they will see the Threads of Life shop, meet weavers from other parts of the archipelago, and learn about international marketing as well as natural dyes. How I wish I could be there with them!

Congratulations to ito Restuala! Congratulations to my weaver friends in Muara! Congratulations to Threads of Life!

I see the small child in the photograph. As she looks at the textile in her grandmother’s hands, she is looking at both the past and the future of Muara. Because of Restuala’s initiative, her future is becoming increasingly bright.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Music of Weaving

When I learned how to weave from Ompu Sihol thirty-one years ago, she introduced me to some of her music: a song or two with words relating to the weaving process and the mouth harp that she played when she was tired of weaving and needed a little diversion. During our travels to make the Rangsa ni Tonun film, I asked every elderly (former) weaver whom we met if she knew any weaving songs. My enquiries didn’t unearth a single melody, for whatever reason. This is another loss that can never be recovered. It makes my single scratchy recording of Ompu Sihol singing what we have come to call 'The Weaving Song' so very precious.

Threads of Life sent me for a brief two-day trip to Timor to meet up with some of their weaver groups so that I could see first-hand how they operate in the field. Their Timor field staff, a delightful Atoni man named Willy, was my guide and he introduced me to a great deal. His insights and stories made the experience especially rich. I was excited when he told me about the importance of rhythm in Timorese weaving and how it had become the basis of a music tradition.
Pounding Morinda
bark at the YPBB studio.
There are rhythms with an audio component such as when the Morinda citrifolia bark is pounded in the large stone or wooden mortars: thump, thump, thump when the dye is being prepared. There is the sound of the weft being beaten in, not just the sword against the newly-thrown weft, but also the reciprocal clack of the warp beam against the upright posts anchoring the loom. He mentioned others as well. I knew that I was hearing about the origins of music in the percussive sounds of simple wooden tools. Melodies and collective merriment were built around them, the task of the weaver being not the lonely job that it often is today, but something engaged in by a joyful community of artists also sharing the spirit of song.

When Jean Howe took me up to a visit I Wayan Karya, a charismatic Balinese who has revived the natural dye tradition in Seraya, an eastern part of Bali, I was inspired by my Timorese experience to once again enquire about the music of weaving, mentioning Ompu Sihol’s use of the mouth harp. He enthusiastically affirmed that the mouth harp had also been used in his village. His father was a great aficionado. Pak Karya clearly remembered the tunes that his father would play in the dark before turning over and going to sleep, and he mimicked them with fervour.

Pak Karya showed MJA Nashir how
indigo dye oxydizes and turns blue.
Because Pak Karya made red dye (which we had failed to find in the Batak area) and because Bali has a cotton gin identical, except in a few decorative embellishments, to the Batak variant, and because there are still spinners in Bali, I called my filmer, MJA Nashir, to join me in Bali in the hopes that we would be able to fill some of the remaining gaps in our film. When I went a seond time to visit Pak Karya, this time with Nashir, I brought two mouth harps with me. I had found them in a music shop in Ubud! (I stored one for Mas Nashir to bring back to the Batak region. We hadn’t been able to find one there.)

I Wayan Karya's mother and their
neighbour playing in two-part harmony
Pak Karya snatched the one with the pull-cord and immediately began to play it, laughing in glee. He set to with his knife to perfect parts of it so that it made a larger and sweeter sound. Then he passed it on to his ageing mother, who was also a skilled player. A visiting neighbour said she still had one and she cajoled a child to fetch it for her. Finally we had what Ompu Sihol had talked about: two people playing a two-part mouth harp melody. It transformed the mood around the looms to one of gaiety. I was so thankful that Mas Nashir was there to film it.
MJA Nashir filming the weaver in
Seraya as she sang.
I was inspired to enquire whether there were any weaving songs (left) in Seraya. At this point, I don’t even dare hope to find them, but to my surprise and elation, there was another neighbour who knew one. She installed herself in the loom and sang in dusky, wavering tones that were reminiscent of traditional Javanese song. Mas Nashir also taped this song while the eyes of the singer glistened with pride at the attention that she was receiving.  (TClick on the film to hear the music!)

I felt a return of the longing that frequently rises up in me: oh, to have several lifetimes! I would spend one of them wandering around the world looking for weaving songs.

S. Niessen standing with
I Wayan Karya in his beautiful
shop filled with natural dyed
After our musical interlude, Pak Karya said that our visit had convinced him to henceforth also dish up music for the tourists visiting his weaving centre. His bright new sign is already standing monumentally on the side of the road, his tidy little shop is built and gracefully proffers hand-woven, natural-dyed cloth, and there is a covered-over area made of bamboo where his weavers sit together to produce the textiles for his shop and demonstrate their skills. His natural dye workshop is situated higher up the hill, behind the wall encircling his compound. The wall is the first element of a planned guesthouse. Pak Karya is dedicated to reviving the traditional weaving of his culture and is turning it into his full-time business.

Before we left, we saw a group of small boys entranced by the mouth-harp music being played. One of them grabbed the simple piece of bamboo when the woman laid it down and tried it himself. They all began to mimic its distinctive vibrations. I have hopes that the attention that we gave to the songs of weaving may indeed contribute to their revival in Seraya. A more fulfilling consequence of our visit could scarcely be imagined.

Living Threads - 17 March

In transit now in Singapore, on my way back to The Netherlands, I think of my first meeting with Pung and Frog in the dye studio of the research foundation arm (YPBB) of Threads of Life. They were showing me how to make red dye using the roots of the Morinda citrifolia tree because I had never had the opportunity to see it done in the Batak area. The Batak stopped using that natural dye decades ago.

Ingredients in one of the red dye recipes

Frog working on a Morinda dye bath in the YPBB studio
Pung and Frog are seasoned field workers. They love to go into the villages and speak with the weavers. They are quiet and both are good listeners, respectful of local dynamics, styles and traditions. They like to get close enough to the weavers to become the recipients of stories about their youth. Often it takes awhile before a dye recipe bubbles up in their memory. (We noticed this with Ompu Okta. It emerges gradually. They need to have the opportunity and the encouragement to re-open memories of past weaving practices.) Rarely do Frog and Pung need to teach a dye recipe because they are unable to recover/uncover the local one. And, out of respect for local traditions, they never share a recipe if it has been given to them in confidence.
Pung’s and Frog’s knowledge is rich and varied. They know the trees and plants, the composition of the soils and the waters and the chemical reactions when all the components come together. With their knowledge, they could fill tracts and tomes and contribute so richly to the academic library on Indonesian weaving (including dyeing) traditions. But “writing up findings” is not their thing. Their first love is being in the field, experimenting with the recipes they learn about, assisting the weavers and making beautiful natural colours. They showed me the results of their failed experiments with a laugh. How much work it took to learn the basic proportions needed for a good dye and the factors that influence the variations!

Ever the academic, I felt regretful that this information and their stories were not being pegged down in writing and disseminated. But there is another side to it all. I am also aware that they are preserving knowledge in a different way. When I think about it, I believe it to be a more valuable way. The West would not need or have museums if indigenous worlds were not disappearing. Many of the activities of ethnographic museum flow from the understanding that it is important and possible to “preserve” indigenous traditions in storerooms and documentation systems, the academic formaldehyde for posterity, so that when the traditions disappear forever, there is at least a record of them. Pung and Frog, on the other hand, are reviving traditions. The dye recipes that they have discovered are not being pickled and described for a rarified Western audience, they are being cultivated once again in their cultures of origin. Dissemination happens when a mother teaches them to her daughter. They are dynamic traditions susceptible to change and renewal. I recall haviong felt a little confused when I realized that the successes of YPBB were taking the urgency out of the necessity to record everything for posterity.

I am an anthropologist who has been shaped by museums and steeped in their history – yet I was curiously elated when I realized that Pung and Frog were making part of the museum endeavour redundant. How brilliantly liberating! If cultural dye traditions were to live as vibrantly as Balinese orchestras in the face of modernity, if they were available for researchers to visit at any time, if indigenous traditions were not threatened but there was room for them and respect for them in the world…it is difficult to even contemplate… the world would be transformed into a living museum and the otherwise redundant buildings called “museums” could perhaps adopt a different interactive role in support of indigenous traditions. How invigorating, satisfying...

On the day that I left Bali (16 March), Frog and Pung left as well. They were heading for the Batak area carrying with them a bag of Morinda citrifolia root, their arsenal of knowledge and their sensitivity to culture. How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall as they work among the Batak. I am impatient to see their results, but they tell me the process is slow and I will have to wait for years. Impatience has no role in this process. If and when they succeed, Batak dye recipes will again be firmly rooted in a few communities, and the weavers will have Threads of Life as their market outlet making their efforts financially worth their while.

...As I post this blog from my office in The Netherlands (in the meantime, I have arrived back home) I have just received a message from Goodman Ompusunggu on Facebook telling me that the weavers in Muara have met Frog and Pung and are excitedly participating in a workshop with them. There is plenty of energy around this renewal of their weaving tradition....How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall....

...A week later, now. Jean Howe has sent me an email telling me about the findings and successes of Frog and Pung. Not surprisingly, the Batak have their own unique recipes with regional variations, and apparently the Morinda root in the Batak area is of high quality. There is great anticipation that soon a natural-dyed Batak textiles will enter the collection of Threads of Life.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Closer to Threads of Life

In March 2009, I gave the first copy of Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to Threads of Life. At the time, I had not yet met them. I had only heard about their work and read about them on their website. I was excited about their cause and felt that my book, while academic, was written in the spirit of their own very practical work keeping Indonesian weaving traditions alive. I wanted to use the public occasion of my book launch to highlight what they do. It is now two years later. I have now met Threads of Life and learned first hand about what they do.

It has all been sparked by Legacy in cloth. They found that the book offered potential as a foundation for working in the Batak area. Until now, they have always worked in Eastern Indonesia. When I was in the Batak region last October/November, some members of the YPBB Foundation, the research arm of Threads of Life, joined me. They wanted to pinpoint places where they could begin to work.

The men in the photograph, from left to right, are Daud, Pung, Nashir and Frog.
The women are former weavers in Sianjur MulaMula

I enjoyed Jean Howe's company alot during those travels. (Photo MJA Nashir)
Phase two of our collaborative plan is happening now, in Bali. I am being given the opportunity to explore what they do and how they do it. The visit is touching me in the very marrow of my anthropological soul. In the first place it is fun to renew my acquaintance with Pung, Frog and Jean Howe, who visited North Sumatra. They shared openly and alot at that time. Now I am seeing them on their home turf. Threads of Life is a beehive of activity. What they do is careful, thoughtful, and complex. I am discovering that I have been given an opportunity to be privy to what I will not hesitate to call one of the most extraordinary experiments in the textile world. My respect and admiration for this organization grows with each passing day.
I have seen their natural dye laboratory/studio, poked my way through their shop, gone behind the scenes in their offices to see their data banks, day-to-day operations and textile stores, and visited field sites in Timor and Bali. All the while, I have been able to talk with them endlessly about what they do and why they do it that way.

Examining one of Ompu Okta's mother's textiles in the Threads of Life office.
Frog is to the left, Jean Howe is pointing thoughtfully to the beadwork in the cloth,
and Pung is to the right. These three had joined me in North Sumatra in November.
Central to their work, and the reason why I find their work excellent, is their sensitivity to the cultures in which they operate and their intense awareness (and learning) of the role that textiles play in those cultures. The revival of textiles often (if not inevitably) resides at the heart of cultural revival. Jean Howe told me yesterday that cultural revival was perhaps their most important goal when they started their business more than a decade ago. And this is what clearly excites the members. Pung, Frog and Sujata, the dye team, have told me many tales about the discovery of natural dye recipes. They do not enter a new area with the tried and true recipes that they know, but facilitate the remembrance of the local recipes and colours. This is a sensitive process that may take years. During the process, the team works like a partner, noting (what is remembered of) the recipe, going back to the lab to try it out, returning to the people to compare results, assisting and troubleshooting aided by their knowledge of the chemistry of the dyes… until they finally get the results they are looking for. In this way, they revive not just the natural dyes, but also local recipes and colours (each dye yields a vast array of colour and each region has its own recipes and preferred tints and tones) and stimulate the revival/retention of that exciting diversity that characterizes Indonesian culture.
Colour is just one facet of the process of textile renewal. Ancient textiles may be “replicated” in appearance, but when they are revived in this cultural sense, including songs, techniques and equipment, associated rituals and so on, this is what is truly exciting and laudable. And this is what Threads of Life does.

On the first day of my visit here in Bali, I saw some “revival textiles” in the Threads of Life storage area that filled me with such emotion that I later had to sit down and try to figure out what was going on inside me. It is hard to explain. At first I described it as akin to the first time I saw impressionist paintings in Paris after having learned to love them in books and postcards. But the wellspring of my emotion was much deeper  than that. I love the quality of the ancient textiles of Indonesia but for so long they have also been the source of a dull, sad ache because I know they represent a past era. Modern products are different. They are not as fine, they are more standardized so that the weaver’s hand is virtually absent as a signature, the materials from which they are made are usually inferior, and so on. In my writings, I have described and analyzed the kinds of changes that have taken place and the social and economic reasons for these changes. Seeing revived textiles has moved me to tears. It is like witnessing a miracle.

 Oh Shoppers, when you go to the Threads of Life shop in Bali, know what you buy! Your purchase is supporting indigenous Indonesian culture, making a tiny bit of room for it in this world.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Showing Rangsa ni Tonun

Fiber Face 3 has given us the opportunity to show our Rangsa ni Tonun film three times.

The first time was 12 February when Batak was chosen as the theme of the grand opening of Fiber Face 3. It was a very busy night -- the busiest that Fiber Face 3 has had to date -- with people lined up to the street to get in and all of the chairs taken. We don’t know how much this had to do with the Batak community coming out in full force. If they came, I think they went away satisfied. We had a full Batak gondang orchestra with the two brilliant players Marsius, amazing with his flute, and Sarikawan Sitohang mastering all of the instruments.

Sarikawan and Marsius Sitohang are wearing the red headcloths.
The set of drums was owned by Batak in Yogyakarta. The musicians
were thrilled to play with the talented Sitohang brothers.
(Photo MJA Nashir)
Mas Nashir orchestrated the opening performance. He had Ompu Okta doli (the male counterpart) recite the Rangsa ni Tonun text to the Sitohang musical accompaniment as the prelude to the premiere screening of our film.
Ompu Okta doli is reading his text while his wife, Ompu Okta boru, weaves
during the opening of Fiber Face 3 in Yogyakarta, February 2011.
(Photo MJA Nashir)
Afterwards we heard that the people who had been able to see it enjoyed the film but that many others were unable to see it because of the milling crowds. I personally felt pleased enough with the result that Nashir had prepared for this big deadline, but was aware that we haven’t yet finished our polishing; there is still plenty of work to be done.

After the opening, my brother (son of my sister in the Hutabarat clan), the protestant minister, Bonar Lumbantobing, contacted me to say that he could be in Yogya on the 17th of February and would he be able to see if he came to Fiber Face 3? This was just the spark that we needed to prepare another screening. He came with a group of enthusiastic and thoughtful theology students. First I gave them a tour of the Batak textiles in the exhibit, then showed the film.

Ito Bonar Tobing's class watching Rangsa ni Tonun on the television screen
in Taman Budaya where the Fiber Face 3 exhibition was staged
(Photo MJA Nashir)
 It was followed by a discussion about culture and religion. What has been lost, why, what can be done about it? We talked about the goal of Fiber Face to stimulate an awareness of the importance of indigenous textile techniques and the thought worlds wrapped up in cloth production.

This was a special moment for me. In Medan, ito Bonar had shared with me some of the insights he had gained from his explorations of Batak language. He had discerned, among other things, that Batak missionaries gave new denotations to Batak words that placed Batak culture in the light of their own European and Christian background and biases, a distortion, in other words, that often gave a negative twist to indigenous Batak beliefs. By discovering the real meanings of some of these Batak words ito Bonar has gained insight into the beauty of Batak culture. Such discoveries are powerful to a thoughtful, discerning mind such as his. I learned from the discussion that evening that the Batak church continues to question its relationship to indigenous Batak culture. So much has been lost that the students were scratching their heads. Why was it, again, that the church forbade so many elements of Batak culture? It all seems so innocuous today. Indeed, it is innocuous. There are essentially no spirit-worshipping Batak left and the culture has receded imperceptibly, like sand between the fingers. There is historical and cultural amnesia. Now the church perceives itself as a champion of Batak culture. Church leaders are asking themselves what they can do to rescue what remains.
(Photo courtesy Paulina Sirait)
The evening was crowned by Paulina Sirait’s minutely documented review of the evening on Facebook. She was one of the students in attendance. (The photograph to the left is courtesy of Paulina Sirait. It was taken of us in front of two of the textiles in the exhibition from Muara..)


(Photo by Nelly Sitorus)
 Another showing was held for the general public on Saturday evening, the 19th of February. This was an important showing for Nashir because he invited his friends and colleagues from his past in Yogyakarta. He left Yogyakarta about a year ago to pursue his future and life in North Sumatra. The decision was preceded by a set of circumstances, not all of them easy, and when Nashir got up to talk about what the film meant for him, he was overwhelmed by all of the emotions that came flooding back. The viewing of Rangsa ni Tonun was an opportunity for him to bring his friends up to date with his life and his creative accomplishments. Several of his friends stood up to give testimony to his creative talents, his courage in searching for a new path for himself, and his good heart.

Others in the audience asked crucial questions:
How much of the weaving world that was shown is still alive and how much was staged?
How vibrant is the Batak literary tradition? Does it still exist? (Thankfully, there was awareness that we had filmed a piece of Batak literature and not simply made a documentary of Batak weaving techniques.)
What is the gendered division of labour in Batak weaving?
The themes of cultural transmission and cultural loss dominated the evening.

Ompu Okta doli tells his story
about the very first ulos
(Photo by Nelly Sitorus)
 Our main stars, Ompu Okta boru and doli were in the audience. A highlight of the evening was when Ompu Okta doli stood up to talk about the origin and meaning of Batak ulos in Batak culture. He did so with his customary energy and narration skill transforming our space into a cozy Batak living room. Suddenly we were all grandchildren hanging on the lips of grandfather and culture was being transmitted from one generation to the next.

Much appropriate emphasis was placed on MJA Nashir’s single-handed filming, direction and editing of this film and he received some of the appreciation that he well deserves for his spectacular accomplishment. My job that evening was to present background issues related to the text and Batak ethnography.

I was sorry that there were some mix-ups and communication failures pertaining to our equipment just prior to the showing and we received a defective cable so that the colour red was absent from the film.

This evening, too, was crowned by Paulina Sirait’s enthusiastic review in Facebook. (We are grateful for this because Nashir and I were both so keyed up with our participation that we forgot to use our cameras.) She has attended all three viewings and this time she brought a sizzling bevy of Batak beauties with her. The spirit of Batak women is indomitable! May they all take up weaving!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Eleventh Hour

(This blog was in the make for about a week....)

It almost always happens to me. Just before a project is due to be published or presented, I lose faith in its value and think that it should go in the round file. Such a moment descended upon me the day before leaving Jakarta. We had come to a difficult juncture in the editing of Rangsa ni Tonun and suddenly the film seemed like an impossibility. The text written down by Guru Sinangga ni Adji is a description of the steps in weaving a cloth, but it also has a poetic quality and plays with words, rhythms and analogies. It does not always follow the exact order in which a weaver carries out her task. Moreover, the way a weaver works varies from place to place and from weaver to weaver as well as from textile to textile. This poses an enormous challenge when editing the film. How much latitude can one take with the text? And are there errors in the guru’s recitation? Should we chop up the weaver’s work to coincide with the text? These questions lead to the inevitable: what are we doing with this filming project and why? What are our purposes and goals?

I began to question many things, but most of all, the style of the film. I think that Nashir has done well infusing the weaving description with a mythical quality. Should we have emphasized that mythical quality more and not focused on the details of the techniques? But how could we have accomplished this? I just do not know enough about film to even begin to articulate this. Our film is neither apples nor oranges, fish nor fowl. It leads me to want to explore comparable texts in other Asian cultures. (Chris Buckley has told me that such texts may be found elsewhere in Asia as well, and not just in the Batak region.) Have we stumbled into a problem of genre? Does this film require a rangsa genre? What form would that take?

On top of that, no matter how we slice it, the film is about translation of a text and of culture. We inch closer to the Batak culture of the past as we work on it, but the closer we get, the further away it seems to recede. The film appears to be an introduction rather than a conclusion. As the text reveals itself as more and more complex, the problem of translation moves increasingly to the forefront. How can plays on words, so distinctively rooted in ancient, foreign, past Batak culture, be turned into film? While I had rejected a verbal translation of the text because it would be so ponderous, now it seems easier to negotiate than a filmic translation.

And then there are all of the practical issues that we have run into. The film is undeniably a visual rendering of Batak weaving terminology. But even this goal is turning out to be increasingly daunting because so much has been lost. We tried valiantly to find people who could execute technical processes for us and we tried heroically to find weaving equipment. We reconstructed and refurbished but in the end, we can only approximate. What is lost is lost and cannot be revived. Too much time has already passed. Is approximation of a past the story that we want to be telling? All of the steps in making yarn and all of the steps in making red dye have been lost. The elderly women in Sianjur Mulamula could pantomime the activities but they are too old to perform them. The tradition is like sand slipping through the fingers. It lives only in their pantomime and memories, and they are women at the end of their lives. Anyone seeing that footage, who truly understands its significance, can only weep.

In addition, the woodworking skills required to make the instrument are gone. Even the trees and access to wood has disappeared. In this sense, our attempt to film Rangsa ni Topnun has been a lesson in the depth of social change that has taken place in the region, the extend of loss. We are making the film 100 years too late.

As I ponder all of this, and consider our resulting filmic translation of this old Batak text, I see that I have come to a crossroads. I am realizing that our own journey of discovery is a valuable story. The reasons why the filming of Rangsa ni Tonun is so difficult have great value. Nashir has coined the phrase “the last weaver” and we both know that his footage of laughing, pantomiming women in Sianjur Mulamula is as tragic as it is fun. The footage is precious and may someday be recognized as such and in demand. It depicts the last weavers talking about a tradition that ends with them. Even if it ‘revives’ and transforms into a recognized art form, it will never be what it was. Is this the real story that we should be telling? Through our film we became aware of the loss of culture. There should have been a camera filming us filming Rangsa. That story behind Rangsa is at least as important as the message of Rangsa and, let’s face it, far more timely. Is our filming of Rangsa ni Tonun just the first step in a longer filmic journey? Just don't tell me that another book about Batak weaving is beckoning me to sit down and write it…