Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Reaction to Rangsa ni Tonun

It is essential to continually raise awareness about the importance of feeding back cultural materials to the peoples whence they originated. Anthropologists and textile researchers don’t do enough of that. The results may only emerge years later but in this time of cultural crisis, cultural erosion and cultural disappearance, feeding back can be critical. In 2012 MJA Nashir and I showed our film, Rangsa ni Tonun, (about the Batak weaving tradition) in dozens of locations throughout the Batak area and beyond and we handed out my book about the film and the original Batak text to almost a hundred people. This was done in the context of considerable decline and lack of interest in the Batak weaving arts.
But as I write now, a little corner of Facebook is abuzz with plans for Batak textiles on the initiative of a man whom I only know through Facebook, “C.f. Sidjabat”. This is how he explained his motivation:

“…ini yang sedang kita lakukan. Inspirasi lama waktu muda terbuka lagi setelah melihat film "Rangsa ni Tonun" karya ‪Mja Nashir (art director) dan ‪Sandra Niessen (producers). Karya yang luar biasa peneliti "halak sileban" yang begitu mencintai Ulos Batak. Saya ingin meberi sumbangsih walau hanya sedikit.”
“…this is what we are doing. An old inspiration from my youth was rekindled after seeing the film, “Rangsa ni Tonun” by MJA Nashir (art director) and Sandra Niessen (producer). An exceptional work by a researcher “halak sileban” who really loves Batak textiles. I wish to contribute even if only modestly.”

What is he doing?

Mr. Sidjabat writes down information supplied by the weavers
in his village. I am delighted to see that two copies of Legacy were
used at the meeting
He is planning an exhibition of Batak textiles, specifically those from his region (Silalahi/Si Tolu Huta). While he lives in Jakarta, he has gone to the effort of returning to his valley where he has assembled the weavers. Together, around the table, they discussed the highlights of their tradition. He made notes. They gave him the names of the 14 textiles that are unique to the region; many brought samples to show him. To my great delight, when he shared this information on Facebook, he presented a profile of each weaver. They were not left anonymous. (Nai Ati in the sidebar of this blog was
Nai Ati was also at the table and she had brought the copy of Legacy
that I had given to her during the first Pulang Kampung project.
present, and depicted at the meeting. This made me very happy. She brought her copy of Legacy to the meeting.)  C.f.Sidjabat is a mover and shaker with a good track record in motivating the people in his region to cherish their culture and nature. He is a man with a mission.

This area (Silalahi and the neighbouring Paropo) is one of the few areas where Batak weaving is still being done, but even here the ancient styles typical of the region are often being sidestepped to cater to the demand from outside markets. The meetings with weavers and the planned exhibition will emphasize the uniqueness of
With the help of the weavers, Mr. Sidjabat assembled
a list of the specialty textiles of his region.
the Si Tolu Huta tradition. It will teach – and hopefully inspire – the youth. It will give energy and pride to the weavers. Hopefully it will stimulate both the market and production. The weavers are old. Their skills need to be transferred to the youth!

C.f.Sidjabat intends to write a leaflet to inform the world of the Silalahi/Si Tolu Huta tradition – not just the textile names but also the patterning. He is sharing his plans, results and inspiration through Facebook, thereby involving, informing, inspiring many people. I am also excited. To the best of my knowledge there has never been an exhibition of the “Silalahi Tradition”. This primeur will buck the wave of what I call “Palembangization” that has been compelling Batak weavers to make Palembang look-alikes in order to corner the currently glitzy market. The exhibition will say, between the hanging cloths, “Your own tradition has value too!”

Hopefully the other Batak regions will follow suit. Few Batak people today know which textiles are typical of their own tradition. Lasma and I have already been talking about doing something like this in Simalungun….

Friday, April 10, 2015

New legacy (and information) from Legacy

I have a new friend on Facebook: Hotnida Saragih. As soon as I accepted her friendship request, she wanted to chat. She knew my book, Legacy, she said, because I had visited her mother’s textile store sometime in the past and because, quite by chance, her grandmother is depicted on page 129. “She is the one wearing a green sweater and chewing betel,” Hotnida said by way of indicating which picture. I had snapped the picture when walking by because it was a rare example of a person still wearing an indigenous headdress, but I had not spoken to its wearer. Now, 29 years later, I was chatting through Facebook to her granddaughter. One cannot help getting a few goose bumps.

Our chat was interesting. Hotnida has taken over her mother’s shop in Pematang Siantar called “Ulos Gedogan Kain Simalungun”. (They used to have a ‘kiosk’ in Saribu Dolok; that is where the picture on page 129 was taken.) This immediately whet my interest. “There is quite a difference between the textile market of today and what your Mom used to know,” I threw out, curious how she would respond. She was in overwhelming agreement. “Nowadays people are interested in quantity but not quality,” she responded. “The artistry in the textiles has disappeared.”

Tapak Satur
In response to my subsequent question about whether there was a demand for textiles of high quality, she was able to answer in the affirmative and point out that she was trying to meet this market by introducing Simalungun textiles in silk. This, too, made me curious. Silk? I had brought silk from Makassar to Hutagalung in 1986 but none of the weavers had been able to use it; it just was not suited to the Batak backstrap loom. Hotnida, however, insisted that it was possible, that she truly was using the backstrap loom, and that it was real silk and not synthetic. She obtained her silk from a friend in Bandung, she said, but she did not know its origin.

She had had a few silk outfits (sarong and selendang) woven in Porsea. Again my interest was piqued. Simalungun textiles woven in Porsea (a Toba region south of Lake Toba) from silk???? “They are still traditional Simalungun textiles,” she claimed…  I could not help but begin to wonder about her definition of “traditional textiles”, especially given that there are essentially no Simalungun weavers left. It turned out she was referring to the textile patterning; her textiles are the Tapak Satur variety, a Simalungun pattern often used by brides. “Tapak Satur being woven in Porsea?” I queried. “Why not?” was the response. “The Porsea weavers are better at using fine yarn than the Silalahi weavers,” she pointed out. I made a mental note to try to look this up someday and take pictures.

Then her story about her traditional Simalungun textiles took another interesting turn. The signature Simalungun textile, known as ‘Bulang’, she has woven in Jambi (a province in the south of Sumatra), she said. At this point, I just about fell off my chair. The story became a little more credible when she pointed out that it was Simalungun weavers, originally from Tiga Runggu (until recently the centre of Bulang production in Simalungun) in Jambi who were doing the weaving. Again, she stressed, “traditional Simalungun”.

How much more complex the geography of Batak textile production has become!