Timor- Power of Cloth, Power of Rivers

Clouds gather across the culturally charged landscape of west Timor’s mountains, and across the border into East Timor

Unlike on many of Indonesia’s islands, Timor’s cultural geography is pulled towards its mountains rather than the sea. Many of the communities with which we work are nestled in these mountain ranges, and can only be accessed by long windy roads. But in the heavy rains that are occurring across Timor right now, these roads quickly turn to slicks of mud and stone. This meant that during this month’s filed trip to Timor, the village of Bokong was inaccessible, with weavers instead descending down to the lowlands to bring us their intricate, Technicolor buna textiles.

The effect of unseasonal rain stretches far beyond access and testifies to the importance of water to both daily life and cultural expression on this side of the Wallace line. With this year’s longer wet season, weavers have spent longer working in the fields than they normally would, hoping to capitalize on an extended growing season. While this has paid off for some communities, others have lost these crops to floods. In such times, the income that weaving provides is of great importance. There is a great sense of purpose in being able to provide a market for weavers in these periods.

Women from Betun inspects a buna textile brought down the mountain by weavers in Bokong

Women in the iconic Ume Kbubu kitchen that is still used extensively across parts of Timor’s mountain villages

Arriving in Abi, weavers emerged from the warmth of the iconic Timorese round kitchen, called an Ume Kbubu, to present a range of ikat textiles in the deep indigo blues that make them famous. Willy Daos Kati, who has worked with weavers in Abi for many years, was visibly moved by some of the pieces. Willy is a cultural leader in Insana and beyond his knowledge of natural dye techniques, his cultural insights are invaluable.

“There is a presence in this cloth, a cultural power, which speaks to you in the same way as the rivers and mountains do,” said Willy. “It is powerful, as well as being beautiful.” Travelling with Willy through Timor was enlightening, and it will be a great joy to listen to him speak about the importance of landscape to culture at the event we will hold at the gallery as part of this year’s Ubud Reader’s and Writer’s Festival in October.

Willy inspects a new man’s hip cloth in Abi

Mama Rosa adds the final beadwork by hand to a futu in Malaka

On the forested slopes in the hinterland, the textiles woven in Bene Bene continue to maintain their strong reds. Sustainable management of the mengkudu tree (Morinda citrifolia) from which these reds derive ensures that such work will continue into the future. Mama Rosa, a master weaver and dyer in the area, has found that the continuing rains have meant that weavers in other areas have struggled to balance their dyes. “I’m used to lots of rain, and so my dying technique still works. I don’t do as much, but we can still achieve the colors we want.”

As I left Timor, Willy and Yansen Tuan – another field staff member – continued on to Boti by foot in the rain. Descending down from the mountains towards Kupang and the plane to take me back to Bali I could see dark clouds encircling the peaks and tumbling down the valleys. The rains seem like they are to continue further into the dry season. What impact a changing climate will have on the lives and cultural expression of the Timorese is still unfolding.

Dark clouds moving in once more over the mountains