Welcome to the debut of Mala: Art and Culture! Mala beads, above, refer to Saraswati, Hindu goddess of the arts and knowledge. I’ll be doing my best to serve as a promoter of the region’s culture and arts.
Here’s a word that’s been buzzing about Bali lately: heritage. We’ve got heritage trees, dogs, pigs, and even heritage rice and foodstuffs.
Heritage in this sense refers to preserved cultural traditions, to objects and qualities that are important to a nation or people, and to products that are emblematic of fine craftsmanship and time-honored use. It is also an apt label for an historical livestock breed or a native strain of a botanical. Packing for a stay in Ubud, I came across a favorite sash (sabuk), naturally dyed and woven in Seraya Timur, Karangasem.
I realized I’d never particularly spread the word about the workshop there (kelompok Karya Sari Warna Alam), a true success in patronage of heritage craft. And because I was headed to the Ubud’s fourth annual Food Festival, I dismissed the heritage textile idea for this first column. Wouldn’t you know, at Ubud, heritage ingredients, recipes, and agriculture were on everyone’s lips (and happily on our tongues). Innovation Generation may have been the festival theme, but the hottest innovators were champions of all things heritage, from reviving their grandmother’s home remedies to seeking out farmers of obscure and endangered Balinese vegetables.
There’s a definite connection between heritage and innovation. Culture being a living thing, based in a definite heritage, it’s fully subject to the whims of its heirs’. Artists and artisans can explore from the solid base of the culture’s knowledge and customs, but may not always know what’s catching on in the community. Mavens and scholars will give the necessary boost to cultural creativity, but its value can often depend upon economics and marketing. Red rice champion Helianti Hilman (Javana foods) spoke of how Javana has been inspiring young farmers by showing them the foreign demand for Indonesia’s heritage foods. Isn’t it amazing how often the creators and inheritors within a culture must be exposed to an appreciative fan base of outsiders? In a win-win move, Helianti brought young farmers from Flores, Papua, and West Java, curious to meet some of their ultimate customers and consumers.
A holistic view of a culture in resurgence revealed itself: stars of food-centric apps, bamboo craftsmen, potters, and young chefs all spoke along the same lines: study and respect time-honored ingredients or component parts, interact and network widely, and be driven by a purpose of sustainability. Newly inspired, I contacted Jean Howe, the expatriate American whose efforts launched the weavers’ enterprise where I purchased the cloth. It suddenly seemed utterly essential that more people learn about this place. Jean’s championed some of this archipelago’s most endangered spinners, weavers and dye makers. A visit to her delightful Threads of Life gallery in Ubud can fast-track a person to Indonesian acculturation. There is so much to appreciate and enjoy in her and British husband William Ingram’s museum-like treasure trove. Their hands-on workshops sell out well in advance and their website is a resource by itself.
Threads of Life came into being when Jean and William were cultural escorts for the phinisi ship Perentis in the 1990’s. Touring with a group through some of the eastern islands of the archipelago, they were shocked to discover villagers selling heirloom textiles. Indonesia was in an economic crisis.
These remote villages were primarily barter societies, and textiles were the only cash commodity they had. Jean asked what was replacing these heirlooms and understood that the sellers had to focus on fast cash to keep their children in school, off island. So Threads of Life started with 12 women on that island and grew to what are now 50 communities on 10 islands with over 1200 weavers.Threads continues to seek ways to improve livelihood in these communities and many are now growing dye plants in for additional streams of income, which in turn encourages a sustainable source of dye materials. Occasionally, Threads hosts traditionally garbed artisan visitors, who engage appreciative crowds with music, songs and dance, and proudly display their work.
And the Karya Sari Warna Alam weavers, along the ring road around Bali’s east coast, where my prized sash was made?
After the Bali bomb, USAID agreed to fund Threads to work with communities in Bali modeled on their earlier successes. The group started reviving textiles using natural dyes in Seraya, Nusa Penida and Sideman. All of these are now functioning independently of Threads of Life and have good sustainable business practices. It took about five years to get them there. These artisans are now primarily selling to their own market where there is a demand for traditional textiles for ritual use. This is precisely what was envisioned by Threads in the first place.
Researching contemporary nuances in heritage textiles, I chanced onto the work of Direz Zender, a young menswear designer in Java who is making it hip to wear natural indigo and hand-drawn batik, through his label Bluesville. Bluesville began in 2011, championing natural dye, particularly indigo, and simple modern batik patterns targeted to younger customers. He credits top designers before him, like Biyan, for innovations using heritage fabrics, but Direz seems to have lit a fire with indigo. As demand grew, with more young designers taking his lead, so did the operational size and number of natural indigo purveyors.
Direz says simply that he got his training by doing, and considers himself lucky to have been mentored by one of his business partner’s mothers, who was already expert in using natural dye. “We were encouraged to preserve traditional processes by creating new textiles, inspired by tradition and heritage,” he told me.
“Bluesville,” he says, “actually tries to create new textiles, but using traditional processes. Our vision is to make something new out of a tradition. Ultimately, we want our products to be the traditional textiles of the future.”
This is done by drawing batik with the hand-held canting, and hand-dyeing their fabrics in natural dye from such pigments as tree barks, roots, dried fruits skin and natural indigo made from indigofera tinctoria leaves. The Bluesville clothing line usually mixes traditional fabrics with new (a sleeve or pocket may be heritage-inspired), but 10% of their line is sewn of 100% traditionally-made fabric. One popular mélange is his line of clothing using indigo dye on camouflage-print fabric.
Direz sees a recent resurgence of Indonesian traditional textiles and natural dyeing, especially by younger designers. He advises anyone serious about learning more, to go to the masters. Sumatera for songket, Java for batik, and Sumba for the double ikat. I’ll add that Bali Aga village Tengganan, near Candidasa, is a super place to discover double ikat and many other unique crafts. English is widely spoken there. So we go full circle on the innovation track. Direz told me that his inspiration draws from “nature and heritage, but simplified to our style; from urban hustle and lifestyle to the indigenous and nomads around the world.”
Your regional textile visit list: www.threadsoflife.com, www.thebluesville.com, Indigenous Celebration at ARMA, Ubud, May 11 – 13, Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, and, in Hong Kong until May 20: ParaSite Contemporary Art Space’s A Beast, A God, and A Line, www.para-site.org.hk/en/exhibitions/a-beast-a-god-and-a-line.
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