Monday, April 25, 2016

Ompu Jonathan: Update

We left Ompu Jonathan, br. Sitanggang a couple of blogs ago on the top of Samosir Island where we had looked, unsuccessfully, for someone who could make the earthenware pots to hold our natural dyes (in the future).

In 2015 MJA Nashir and I had quickly organized a spinning workshopWe had learned that Ibu Tetti had planted cotton and that the fluffy bolls were available for use. We knew that there was a lone spinner close by and we decided to bring the cotton and the spinner together. But who would attend the workshop? To our surprise, Ibu Tetti knew two weavers from the top of Samosir Island who wanted to learn how to spin. Ompu Jonathan was one of them. 

I was curious. "Why do you want to learn how to spin?" I had asked her. Spinning cotton is not easy and eats up takes an enormous amount of time. "I want to be able to make a sibolang textile like my ancestors used to do," came Ompu Jonathan's response.

Her answer gave me pause. I read into it nostalgia for days gone by, a respect for the traditions of the past. I looked at this lithe, betel-chewing woman. What a goal to have! How unusual in this day when weaving is on the way out! I didn't quite know what to make of her dream. An unrealizable pipe dream? I didn't know whether to comfort or commend her.

The sibolang may well be
one of the oldest Batak textiles
Samosir Island was once renowned for its mystical impenetrability; according to myths, it was home to the first Batak. Here the weaving arts flourished, especially the great blue cloths that for centuries formed the woven core of ritual practice. They could very well be the oldest textiles in the Batak repertory. On Samosir Island, these textiles were woven with the greatest variety, size and quality of anywhere else -- not just for the Toba Batak who lived there, but also for the Simalungun Batak on the Northeast shore of the lake. They, too, used the great, wide, blue hipcloths, just slightly different in design from the Toba variants. Samosir weavers (or their agents) negotiated the trek downwards off the great height of the island to sell their finished wares through the markets located on the shores of the lake. When I visited the Island in 1986, I found a few weavers there who still dyed their yarn with indigo dye from plants that grew wild on the craggy, rocky surface land. When I visited in 2010, there was not a single weaver left. The elderly ones who had known how to weave had all hung up their looms -- or burned them assuming that nobody would ever again take up the art.. The devout, blue cloths no longer had much of a role to play in local rituals having been eclipsed by lightweight, colourful, fashionable things.  The blue tradition of Samosir may be declared dead.

Ompu Jonathan is a practiced weaver. She learned the art from her mother and she brought it to her husband's village when she married. There she is a solitary weaver. She used to make the sibolang and remembers its decline on the market and the rise of the sadum. She switched to making the red headcloth, sigaragara, for the Karo market, a cloth that, despite its colour, has many similarities with the sibolang. The Toba have also catered to the Karo market for centuries. In this way, she could still have an income. She also makes the Toba Batak surisuri textile if she receives an order. (Do any readers want to order this cloth from her? Let me know!)

I listened carefully to Ompu Jonathan
My path crossed Ompu Jonathan's again earlier this year when Lasma and I visited Ibu Tetti to discuss the possible futures for cotton on Samosir Island. Ompu Jonathan joined us as we teased the seeds out of the cotton bolls that ibu Tetti had spread before us. "How are your plans developing to revive the sibolang textile?" I asked her, half out of politeness, and half out of curiosity. Again Ompu Jonathan impressed me with her dedication to her quest. She still had not wavered from her course. "How long have you had this dream?' I asked. "About five years" she answered. (She is now 54 years old.) She had tried her hand at spinning and had been frustrated by the shortcomings of the spinning wheel that we had given to her.  She had done her best; she still wanted to be able to spin! It was clear that it was still worthwhile to assist her in achieving her dream.

I decided that Ompu Jonathan would be an asset that should be included in the Textile Revival Project with the Bank of Indonesia. This kind of spirit, this kind of dedication could only benefit the project! And she needed to be encouraged and rewarded!  If she had the tools, she certainly had the will!  What a shame if she were not able to succeed!

Ompu Jonathan is now looking for a person who can teach her how to make the ikat patterning in the sibolang textile. It used to be that every weaver of the sibolang made her own ikat. Where can she find an ikat maker now on Samosir Island? Like Ma Tika, she also joined us as we made our rounds from one weaving region to another during our last journey through Tano Batak. In Muara she returned from the market with a bundle of ikat patterned yarn, overjoyed that the maker had let her purchase it. She also made acquaintance with the natural dyer and learned the recipe for indigo dye. Like Ma Tika she broadened her network so that, as soon as she has found her ikat teacher, presumably she will have all the tools to be able to accomplish her goal.


This time we left Ompu Jonathan at Parapat where she was going to cross over to Samosir Island and look around on her own for an ikat maker. We had too little time left to be able to cross over with her and assist in the search. I wonder how she fared? As I write, curiosity is getting the better of me. I simply have to call…. 

… Alas, I have just learned through the telephone that Ompu Jonathan has not yet found her ikat guru. I have to get back there to help her as soon as I can.  That's two things on my list: her spinning wheel and her ikat guru. Oh yeah, and a souvenir from The Netherlands. I asked if helping her achieve her goal wasn't enough and she said, "No". There you have it!  Three things on my list.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ma Tika: Portrait of a Weaver

Ma Tika at work in her loom
During my last journey to Indonesia, I met Lasma's weaving teacher, Ma Tika, Nesli br. Saragih, a Simalungun woman. I invited her to travel with us as we were at the beginning of a journey that would take us to various weavers in different Batak regions. She had other plans, but she cancelled them and seized this new opportunity with both hands. She was quiet and modest in the extreme (a bit intimidated), but as the days went by, I got to know her a little bit. I loved watching her single-mindedly take every single opportunity that presented itself to expand her weaving knowledge and skill. For her the journey must have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance.  For me it was an affirmation of how important it is for weavers to have a network that inspires and teaches them. If that network was once available in a weaver's village, now a weaver has to travel far and wide to construct it. Such is the consequence of the decline and disappearance of the weaving tradition.

Ma Tika (the mother of Tika; in the Batak area you reference people by the names of their children or grandchildren if they have them) started to weave at the turn of this 21st century. She is now 48 years old, so she must have been around 30 years old when she began. She had watched her mother weave the bulang as a child and did the things that children do, like winding the weft. Her weaving spirit expressed itself very early; she longed to work in the loom rather than in the fields and so at one point she insisted on learning to weave. For various reasons her mother refused to teach her; undaunted, she taught herself. This is remarkable. She had watched her mother weave, and she had an example of the bulang in her possession. She simply went to work by trial and error learning how to replicate the textile in her possession. She explained that this important textile  -- afterall, it is worn on the head !!! -- cannot have flaws. As she struggled to learn she unravelled her work every time she made an error. Wove and un-wove, wove and un-wove. This is the most difficult textile in the Siimalungun repertory! When I met her, she showed me her work and asked me to critique it. I didn't understand the significance of her request at first as I thought: you are a weaver, you know better than I how to weave!

Weaving supplementary weft is all about counting the warp yarns to
make the correct shed
Gradually, however,  I came to understand what she wanted from me. She needs colleagues and also technical insights into how to produce a high quality textile. She learned to weave when the marketplace was already enforcing shortcuts on the weavers, demanding that they weave more loosely to use less yarn and more quickly in order to have another cloth ready for the next market. She never learned in the 'traditional way' that emphasized quality. When she was learning, meeting the parameters of the market meant being able to eat, so she learned how to make a textile fast, using shortcuts. Since those days, the bottom has fallen out of even that very poor market  because mechanized producers have started to make a version of the bulang -- certainly a version of lower quality, but also a cheaper version that the market has welcomed. Almost every backstrap weaver was forced by these new circumstances to stop weaving the bulang. Ma Tika has been able to continue because she obtains orders from the Church where there are some people willing to pay the higher price. Ma Tika does not know how much one of her textiles fetches; she only knows how much she is paid for her labour. One cannot claim that it is a living wage, far from it; the amount she earns is painfully, heart-stoppingly low. But Ma Tika continues to weave. She is a weaver at heart, not a gardener. She loves the bulang.

She knew from Lasma that I had an old bulang textile in my possession and she begged me to bring it to show to her. I did this and her reaction was remarkable. She pulled out a needle-like instrument and immediately started counting the yarns in the supplementary weft section.  Her own textiles are loosely woven; she wanted to know how to make a more densely woven cloth and the impact that would have on the patterning. By examining the old cloth, she obtained her answer.

Ma Tika, Lasma and I examining the old bulang.
In my hand is a blown-up, laminated image of a pattern in one of
Pamela's bulang textiles
(Photo by MJA Nashir)
From my friend, Pamela Cross, a bulang aficionado, I had received detailed photographs of several bulang end fields (where the supplementary weft is located). I printed them larger than life, laminated them, and gave them to Ma Tika to refer to. She latched onto them with the same alacrity and started to count yarns. Her findings yielded all kind of insights about different time periods, availability of various kinds of yarn, the ways of working of weavers in the past and variety in patterning.

I was able to contribute from my knowledge of museum collections and Batak textile history. I pointed out that machine-like perfection is not a characteristic of the textiles made long ago, that there is in fact charm in the hand of the weaver and in the imperfections. I told her that each region once had its own specialty expressed through technique, design and colour, that different yarns have come onto the market at different times, that the tradition is dynamic and has never been stable, that there is also room for her to experiment and build on the past. All of these were new insights to her. She works in a time when a single template is replicated and the standard of weaving has become extremely narrow. Initially Ma Tika was inclined to judge the textile that was closest to what is made today as the "correct" textile. Exploring the images and discussing them gave birth to a new goal for her. Now she wants to replicate the one that is most 'foreign' to her and thus represents the greatest challenge. In fact, she is up for replicating them all. I reminded her that she also has a creative spirit that could express itself in the cloth.
Comparing the old with the new in Ma Tika's home
(Photo by MJA Nashir)
As our journey proceeded, we met Batak women who plant cotton. Ma Tika collected cotton seeds. We met a natural dyer. There, Ma Tika collected the seeds for the indigo plant and the bark of the roots of the morinda citrifolia that yields red dye. She also collected the recipes for the dyes. In addition, we ordered enough yarn to be dyed with these colours that she will be able to make many bulang with natural dyes even while she is learning the dye technique herself.

We met twiners, the specialists who make the patterned edgings in Batak textiles. Ma Tika watched their work and learned the technique but decided that she would rather stay with her own regional specialty for her bulang textile.

She saw weft holders used in the Toba Batak region and brought one home to Simalungun, only to discover that it did not function properly for her because her weft is wound differently. She learned that her region was not 'lacking' in a weft holder, but that even the way weft is wound is a regional specialty in its own right.

Ma Tika has been using a loom passed down from her mother. She claims that it is too small for her. During the journey she met a weaver who was willing to pass on parts of the loom that she needed to be able to make a wider textile.

And our sponsor, Bank Indonesia, agreed to purchase a new pair of glasses for her so that she can see better as she weaves.

All in all, our journey may well have supplied Ma Tika with all of her basic needs to be able to revive a bulang textile of former glory: sumptuous, beautiful, densely woven.

I love to work with self-motivated, enthusiastic weavers. In fact, I say over and over again that there is no point trying to work with a weaver who does not have these characteristics. Ma Tika's road to the future will not be an easy one. She will only be able to conduct her experiments in her 'free time' and she has little of that because she weaves for a living and earns so desperately little. She is a widow and still has dependent children. Moreover, she only has one loom and can't have two textiles on the go at one time. But she has will and determination. She learned to weave by herself, she loves the bulang tradition, and she loves a challenge. She is clever, strong and determined. She will give it her best shot -- and she will share her work with Lasma every step of the way. If a bulang revival happens in Simalungun, it will be due to her. May she remain healthy and spared from disasters!

Towards the end of our journey we visited the T.B. Silalahi museum in Balige. Ma Tika was disappointed with the Simalungun textiles she saw there on display. Now she has an additional goal: to make a textile that will one day be displayed in the museum and become a source of pride for all Simalungun visitors.

Go Ma Tika, go!