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.