Endangered Textile Design: Will we make room for it to survive?

Event: International Convention of Asia Scholars

Roundtable Title: Endangered Textile Design: will we make room for it to survive?

Convenors: Sandra Niessen and Geneviève Duggan

Where: Museum Volkenkunde, Paviljoen Building, Leiden, The Netherlands

When: 18 July 2019, 17.00 – 18.45

The Bebali Foundation’s Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System (CELLS)

By William Ingram, Threads of Life (threadsoflife.com) and the Bebali Foundation (bebali.org), Indonesia

Thank you to Sandra and Genevieve for initiating this discussion and for seeding a dialogue with their reflections on the enclosure of the cultural resource of Batak textile design, and the issues related to applying intellectual property law and geographic indicator branding to Savunese textiles. As participants in this discussion, we have been invited to consider “what indigenous weavers need to be able to perpetuate their unique, cultural designs in their communities” and to look for “possible solutions for protecting weavers’ work, identity and for improving their economic opportunities”. I offer the following case study of the work of Threads of Life and the Bebali Foundation as a perspective on these important issues.

As indigenous weavers’ communities have moved from economies based on subsistence, barter and ritual exchange to a cash-based economy, the survival of textile traditions has become dependent on income from sales. Certainly, many if not most women continue to weave because it is a vocation and a calling, a responsibility to their ancestors, but they stop weaving when they can no longer afford to do so, when selling textiles no longer pays the bills.

To reframe Sandra and Genevieve’s focus questions, how do we facilitate profitable, scalable and sustainable enterprise development for indigenous producers that aligns with their customary values and uplifts their cultural identity? Or put another way, since introducing market-based initiatives to indigenous communities brings together the conflicting value systems of the global market and the indigenous society, how do we develop livelihood opportunities while seeking to maintain cultural integrity? The answer to these questions is not to avoid economic development as most communities are already engaged in and dependent upon the cash economy and the global market. Rather, the economic development requires a careful balancing of the profit motivated, growth-oriented values of business with the custom-bound, cyclic-natural-systems orientation of indigenous culture.

Most enterprise development seen in indigenous communities across Indonesia focusses on teaching the indigenous community how to operate in the market, with the support organization learning about the local culture only as far as is necessary to this end. As the communities working with Threads of Life with have told us, this kind of engagement is often experienced as an imposition of non-indigenous values and thus meets resistance that undermines the success of livelihoods initiatives. Conversely, we have seen that crafts initiatives narrowly focused on cultural issues often fail to appreciate the values and practices of the markets they are attempting to sell into, and therefore often fail in their enterprises. There is a gap therefore between these two approaches. Organizations that are able to face both ways — both towards the market and towards the traditional culture — are few and far between.

Among the most powerful drivers of cultural change in indigenous communities are the implicit assumptions of a market-oriented development process. Where improved market access is a widely promoted good, the unintended consequences for culture and ecology go largely unquestioned, even by grassroots organizations and social enterprises involved in the livelihoods aspects of community development. A significant reason for such failings is that there are few non-academic mechanisms for an organization or its staff to explore these connections.

We have seen many examples of marketing interventions that focus on helping indigenous artisans maintain the techniques and materials of a tradition. Such interventions may employ customary motifs, though they often adapt or extract these designs from their traditional products without considering the cultural consequences of doing this. There may be an explicit or implicit assumption that maintaining the skill sets and motifs is enough to sustain cultural expression, but there is rarely any examination of either the connections between a craft product and its customary uses, rituals, trade patterns and underlying meanings, or the impact of changing a craft product upon the same. A further common assumption is that using traditional materials is automatically sustainable, but this assumption is made without having any way to document the impact of increased levels of resource use on local plant populations.

Enterprise initiatives working on cultural arts and crafts development with indigenous communities therefore face a challenge: they need to build livelihood opportunities without undermining the culture from which the craft springs or without degrading the environment within which the raw materials are found. Furthermore, they need to do this without any integrated tools that could help them understand the linkages between culture, ecology and livelihoods, and that are appropriate to the skills sets of their field staff, many of whom have no more than a high school education. Few organizations therefore attempt to seriously address these three issues simultaneously and the result is often unintended consequences from livelihood initiatives for the culture or the environment, which in turn undermine the long-term viability of the livelihoods work.

Addressing these issues, the current work of the Bebali Foundation is intended to help support organizations face both towards the market and towards the traditional culture, using non-academic tools (though developed with academic rigor) appropriate for local staff that link culture, ecology and livelihoods. To get to this point, our work has gone through three overlapping phases that reflect our deepening understanding of the issues faced by the more than 1000 indigenous weavers we work with in over 50 communities on 12 islands.

In 1998 we started the for-profit Threads of Life to work with indigenous weavers who were making their customary textiles using natural dyes, buying their work and reselling it on the international market. There was (and is) a niche market that will pay a premium for natural dyed work that demonstrates cultural integrity, and the prices this market bears mean we have been able to pay a high enough premium to incentivize weavers to maintain high standards and set aside good pieces for us. We focused on developing business models, both for the for-profit Threads of Life organization and its retail gallery in Ubud, Bali, and through the Bebali Foundation for the individual weavers and weavers’ groups we were working with. In terms of the focus of the ICAS Roundtable, we sought to be neutral with respect to textile design: when asked by weavers what designs and motifs we wanted them to make, we asked in return what designs and motifs their mothers and grandmothers made. We made ourselves students of their textile culture rather than making them into students of the global market. We learned what made a good textile and a poor textile within the local value system and aesthetic, and then reflected these back upon the weavers as the quality control standards we held their work to.

In 2002 we established the Indonesian nonprofit Bebali Foundation to facilitate the inter-generational transmission of natural dye knowledge and the management of dye plant resources. To do this we had to become dyers and botanists. We documented dye recipes, collected botanical voucher specimens of 294 dye species and had them identified by taxonomists at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, repeated those recipes in our dye studio, and identified where potential problems were. Back in the communities, we used what we learned to ask the right questions to provoke conversations that transferred knowledge between elderly former dyers and younger active dyers. In landscapes that have changed from subsistence agroforestry systems (that once provided food, medicines, fibers and dyes, and materials for building, toolmaking and rituals), into commodity-based forest gardens (that produce coffee, chocolate, cloves, cashews, candlenut, and other cash crops), we have been working to establish cultivation of formerly wild-crafted dye plants.

In 2010 we realized there was a gap between the implicit cultural knowledge about our partner communities that our field staff had developed over years of field work, and the institutional knowledge of our organization. Back-to-office reports were being written, but among a staff not used to reading long documents, they were being filed and forgotten. Training new field staff took three to four years as they were not building on the learning of their predecessors, but repeating it (and creating interviewee fatigue in the communities as well). Decision making in the Bali office about what we were doing in the field was sometimes out of touch with the reality in the communities, and where we were unconscious of our cultural surroundings, our actions could be having unintended negative impacts. As the Hippocratic Oath begins, first do no harm.

A key insight has been that for our organization to align as much as possible with the cultures of our partner communities, our internal pedagogy has to mimic the pedagogy of the people we work with: the way we record and share information has to mimic the way the cultures we work with record and share information through material culture. Otherwise, we are subtly imposing an external epistemology and devaluing the indigenous one. (The more we engage with this issue, the more we are coming to see that changes in pedagogical and epistemological processes are at least as significant as drivers of change in material culture as the economic changes.).

Many aspects of material culture, particularly the textile arts, embody social and spiritual information and meaning in their motifs, visual structures, making, and uses. They are also mnemonics for stories, poetry and myths that root a people in historical, social and ecological context. Congruent concepts will occur over and over in different aspects of material culture and be expressed on different scales connecting, say, the structure of a loom to the visual structure of the cloth made on the loom, and the visual structure of the textile to the architecture of the house in which the textile is kept, and the architecture of the house to the layout of the village the house is part of, and the village layout to the mythology of the landscape it sits within, and the landscape’s myths to the stories associated with the plants in that landscape, and plant-related stories to the materials of the loom, and with aspects of all this having parallels in the structures of social institutions.

A person growing up within such a culture is immersed in this milieu. Understanding is visceral: it resides in the muscle memory of repeated tasks. It is implicit: no one person can hold it all and each person’s interests lead them to hold different parts of the whole. Understanding is dispersed across a wide community, is rich in contradictions and conflicting points of view, and is compiled anew in the performance of each ritual or social gathering. Rightness is felt more than it is thought. Mastery is recognized in someone who feels the congruency of underlying connections so deeply that an intellectual understanding emerges, but this intellectual understanding is seen as intensely personal and is often considered spiritually dangerous to share.

How then can an external organization record and share information in a way that mimics how indigenous cultures record and share information through material culture? Since 2015 the Bebali Foundation has been developing what we have called the Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System (CELLS) to combine field research practices and office workflows with three of our existing database systems (a cultural knowledge database, an herbarium and plant use database, and a retail inventory database).

For a cultural object (be it a textile, a basket, a loom, or some other aspect of material culture) from a particular cultural group, we document its visual structure, the motifs and designs within that structure, the object’s uses, and the rituals performed upon it during its making and within which it has a role once completed. We record the raw materials, tools and techniques employed in its making. We record the names of the makers we are working with and their family and clan memberships. We identify how much of each plant material is being grown by which people and combine this with the techniques data to find out how much of an object can be made sustainably. We research the local market value for an object and record what we have sold the object for in the non-local market, modifying our marketing activities to make sure that the local market remains active and vital. Meanings, myths and stories are recorded wherever they occur in this data schema for an object (Figure 1). Where appropriate, a text field is formatted as a blog with multiple entries recorded over time — here is what this person said to this staff member at this time, or what this researcher said in this publication — but without indicating which is the “correct” answer. Navigation within the database allows the user to move from one part of the schema to any other part, from the schema from one object to that for any other object, and from the schemas for one cultural group to those for any other.

Figure 1. Data schema for a cultural object

Building to the educational standard and aligned with the cultural values of our organization’s field staff and the communities they serve, through trial and error we have honed the sweet spot between having text fields that are so open that users do not know what to write in them, and so limited that we get one word answers. We seek to avoid the danger of having the database structures driving the data collection and instead seek to modify the database model to accommodate what we are learning in the field. Populated databases are not the intended outcome; we seek always to keep the learning process at the forefront.

The CELLS platform helps our staff and our organization understand the cultures of our partner communities more deeply, and therefore helps us work more effectively in partnership with these communities and act more appropriately towards their culture. It helps us better understand local raw material plant populations and facilitate more sustainable production. And it helps us market more powerfully to our urban customers and advocate more compellingly to the wider world.

Figure 2. Visual structure for a Tais Marobos Rarote textile from Malaka, Timor

The CELLS workflows stimulate our organization to develop a series of questions about the links between culture, ecology and livelihoods: both detailed questions that are provoked by the fields in the databases and answered through research in partner communities, and high-level questions that are provoked by the structure of the data model to expose the connections that turn data into understanding and applicable knowledge. Since CELLS records the results of research into these questions in text fields formatted as blogs, we record diverse points-of-view and changes over time, and the process of using CELLS teaches these data and stories to the staff of our organization, whose abilities to explain the data and retell the stories then bring credibility and sensitivity to their field work and added value to our marketing.

Using CELLS, we can see how new field work staff develop a more holistic understanding of their work in communities, expanding their approach beyond a narrow focus on livelihoods. When they have finished buying, there is always something to talk about now as their interests have expanded to include production techniques and equipment, textile structures and meanings, social structures and connections: there are now endless opportunities for dialogue. But they are not abstract research questions; they drive personal interests which become the relationship-building experiences that are the foundation for successful collaboration.

This year we are in the process of opening up the bilingual CELLS platform to other Indonesian organizations working with indigenous weaving traditions. Our first partner is Nani House, a Maumere-based NGO working for the cultural continuity and market development of Krowe textiles in Sikka Regency. Though we have worked with Nani House founder Daniel David since the 1990s, this partnership is only in its first few months. What is clear is that a bottle neck in Daniel David’s ability to develop an organization to support Krowe weaving is that he keeps all information in his head. His excitement with CELLS is that he understands how this habit limits his impact and now sees a way to share what he knows in support of improving his organization’s work with Krowe weavers and improving the storytelling aspect of their marketing work.

A broader measure of the impact of Threads of Life’s work in a community is when we can no longer buy the best pieces because they are being kept for local cultural purposes. An example of this is Rosalina Bubu from Malaka, who through the 2000s was one of the most productive weavers we worked with in Timor. She was a locally recognized master weaver and dyer when we first started buying from her, but once income from textile sales had improved her household standard of living and educated her children, she turned her attention to producing textiles for a once-in-a-generation clan house renovation and for the weddings of her children. She shows us these beautiful pieces she is making, but now that her children are the household breadwinners has no interest in selling anymore.

For more information about Threads of Life’s work since 1998, see the article in the journal Textile: Cloth and Culture:

William Ingram (2019) Deities, Dyers, and Dollars: Balancing Culture, Conservation, and Commerce with Indonesia’s Indigenous Weavers, TEXTILE, DOI: 10.1080/14759756.2018.1473982 (https://doi.org/10.1080/14759756.2018.1473982)