First, Do No Harm

What colour is the sky

When I first came to Bali in 1986 I remember talking to Pung as I was trying to learn some Balinese. Colours were among my first words as would be the case for any kindergarten-level learner.

“What colour is that?”

I asked, pointing to the deep blue sky.

“Gadang,” Pung responded.

“And what colour is the grass?”

“Gadang,” said Pung.

Puzzled, I continued. “What colour is the sea?”

“Gadang,” said Pung once more.

“They can’t all be ‘gadang’!”

I said, now really confused. “Is ‘gadang’ blue of green?”

“Yes,” continued Pung, patiently.

I later learned from someone else that there is a word for the colour blue in Indonesian and that is ‘biru’. However, there was no everyday word for blue (as distinct from green) when I first arrived in Bali. Nor is there a distinct word for blue in any of the languages that we have encountered while working with traditional weaving communities through Threads of Life. Biru has been adopted into vocabulary now and the Threads of Life team will use the word as we discuss traditional colour palettes of textiles.

However, for traditional communities the colour that is sought through Indigo dyeing better translates as black. Meton, Muang, Miton: each cultural group has a word for it.

Miton or black is a deep blue-black colour

Black is the dark interior of a traditional house

Black describes the darkness high in the attic of a traditional house where the spirits of the ancestors reside. Light does not reach these areas where ritual wares are kept. Black is the colour of the earth and fertile land out of which life emerges. The womb is dark and a new born child is kept protected with his or her mother in the dark inside a traditional house for 42 days before emerging into the world and the community.

I have always been struck by traditional textiles that achieve this incredible deep black-blue colour, which is in fact the mark of an extraordinary dyer.

Indigo dye pot

The deep indigo-black band of a Savu Ei Ledo textile

Of late, Indigo has become popular in the world as a natural dye. The western palette is often attracted to a very light sky blue or medium blue shade. In many of the traditions that Threads of Life works with, such light shades of blue would be considered poor dyeing. In Savu, for example, textiles require a deep blue colour, one such textile being called an Ei Wo Medi, where ‘medi’ translates as black.

About 7 years ago a collector and textile enthusiast was in Kupang, Timor and came upon Tobo Mehe, an accomplished Savu weaver and dyer. (He took on the role of weaver when his mother had no daughters to continue the art form). Tobo reported the following encounter.

“Why do you have this dark colour for your indigo work?” inquired the western textile enthusiast. “Indigo should be blue! The market wants to recognize indigo on a textile,” she pointed out, critically.

Tobo took this in and when I came with the Threads of Life team the following year to purchase textiles, he proudly brought out Ei Ledo textiles with bands of medium indigo-blue. I could not conceal my dismay.

“What did you do?! Why is this section not deep blue-black indigo!” I gasped. “You ordered them,” he patiently explained. “I never would have ordered something like this. We always ask for you to make traditional textiles like your grandmother made.” I retorted.

Indigo black hands

Indigofera tinctoria leaves used in indigo dyeing

Tobo insisted I had ordered the six pieces even though I insisted I had not. We did not buy the textiles and Tobo was rightfully very upset. The Indonesian field staff with me intervened and spoke with Tobo for quite some time. They suggested that he go back to making the traditional textiles as he had once made them and that we would return next year.

It took some time for me to realize what had happened. We communicate with Tobo in our shared language, Indonesian, and were using ‘biru’ to describe the textiles we were buying from him. Even though I have known Tobo for more than a dozen years, I was still an outside buyer and my use of ‘biru’ was not differentiated from the other outside textile enthusiast-buyer’s re-definition of the indigo blue.

From this experience we have learned to always use the local word for a colour whenever talking about textiles we are buying!

This brings me back to the CELLS (Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System) project that Threads of Life and the Bebali Foundation are working on. This knowledge management system and database contains information, photos and stories for cultural objects from communities where Threads of Life has worked for the past twenty years.

Recently, while we were refining our lists of raw materials, work-in-progress materials, and production techniques, we came cross the phrase “blue dyed cotton threads” and a red flag began waving madly in my mind’s eye. As we had seen in Savu, outside perspectives can be powerful actors on traditional cultures. “We cannot use the word blue,” I said, thinking of the potential harm we could cause by using a simple word. So now we are pondering a better word choice: Dark indigo? Black? Dark? Whichever one we choose it won’t be used lightly (so to speak ).

Black threads used in making a Balinese poleng textile