Weavers' Stories from Island Southeast Asia (Fowler Museum Textile Series)

By Roy W. Hamilton. 2012. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 88 with DVD pages. ISBN: 9780977834495 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Dev N. Pathak, South Asian University

[Review length: 1312 words • Review posted on January 23, 2013]

Weavers do not act upon their yarn alone; they draw upon their subjective experiences and thoughts, too. They accomplish not only a piece of craft, much akin to modern fine art, in their tangible woven result; they also narrate a story in the process. And what renders this whole phenomenon pregnant with meaning is an aesthetic blend of artful practice and the everyday life of weavers. In this scheme, the fabrics produced by the weavers fuse the hues of mythology, history, and biography. Personalized accounts, enfolding the woven fabrics, invite a reader of Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia to figure out not only the motifs of art but also motifs of living and dying in the crucible of historical upheavals.

The making of this book presents an unusual and curious story. It is a perfect example of visual anthropology in contemporary scholarship, wherein video-documentation of the process of informal as well as formal textile production, and the simultaneous narration of stories, are instrumental to the product. The animating detail in the video enlivens the textual presentation of context in the book without compromising on the rhythm of life and art. It thereby refutes the commonsense notion of the enlightened intelligentsia that artisans belong to the category of “unreflective folk.” The book succeeds in unraveling the intelligible intellect of the weavers, as they emerge as narrating, reflecting, and weaving “homofabers” in contrast to the textual-anthropological image of passive creators waiting to be a subject of anthropological interpreters.

Hence, the book does not waste space in interpreting and seeking for indubitable “meanings.” The introduction to the book cogently questions and departs from the intellectual quest for monolithic meaning. The latter, in the author’s view, has plagued social scientific enterprises for ages and carries a belief about folk artisans that “they no longer know the meaning of the motifs” (10). This book, tied to an exhibition at the Fowler Museum, represents as well a departure from the regular practices of exhibition and reduction of art and craft into museum(ized)-fossilized-exotic material. It aims at telling the tales in contemporary historical context without jeopardizing their elements of folk mythology. It was envisioned and accomplished by curator Roy W. Hamilton in collaboration with anthropologists Jill Forshee, Traude Gavin, and Cherubim A. Quizon. The specific locations at which the stories are recorded were Flores; East Timor and West Timor; Sumba and Java in Indonesia; Sarawak in Malaysia; and Mindanao in the Philippines, in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

The stories of individual weaving artists are accompanied by visual displays representing each artist’s work. In the aesthetic glow of this work’s visual motives and patterns, and through the excruciating process of artistic accomplishment, a set of moot motives emerging from the narratives assume a deep hermeneutic significance. A host of the core moot motives lingers even after one finishes the book, and this afterglow impels the reader to continue to reflect on them.

The first and foremost of these moot motives is that the calling of weaving is intricately related to a metaphysical matrix. It is not merely the weaver weaving for a living, to fulfill a demand/need in personal/public domains, to express artistic-creative urges. It is rather with more grandeur that the individual project connects the narratives to the local-contextual cosmology, aiding an understanding of larger concerns such as living and dying. Thus, “a deceased mother or grandmother, for example, may appear in a dream to provide instructions to Iban weavers or dyers in Sarawak.” And the ancestral spirit might thereby inspire an under-confident weaver like Sii to decide, in her words, that “you do know...you have to know” (27). In addition to the visceral return of the spirits of loved ones, there could be an animistic spirit such as that of snakes presiding in the subconscious of weavers in Tutuala in the far eastern tip of Timor, which will make them believe that “the snake lent its (reticulation) pattern to the ancestors, while the cloth itself became imbued with the spiritual power of the snake” (29). The snake spirit (Ifi) also asserts judicious authority, reinforcing moral-customary order, even through the paroxysm of historical-political violence afflicting East Timor. In the same vein, the author notes that “cloth has been a crucial medium within Sumbanese cosmology” (37).

But then, the metaphysical and cosmological are not divorced from the historical and the material in the worldview of the weavers. This brings us to the second moot motif in the narratives of the weavers. It unfolds tangibly when the saga of lamentable loss is narrated in more or less every weaver’s tale. The Sumbanese weavers express it more vociferously, despite the boom in textile production with the inflow of tourists, which means that reproductions of their work are more marketed in Bali than their original work. Not much different is the woe of jilbab(headscarf)-wearing Siti, whose enterprising business is unhindered by her customary allegiances; she finds her Madurese batik less in competition with the Javanese batik in the fashion market. Most poignant is the tale of Lang Dulay, recipient of a national award from the Philippine government for her weaving acumen; she has a mixed sense of celebration, like other awardees.

Hamilton summarizes this theme as follows:

“Although the lifelong stipend was welcome and quite generous, and full health care coverage they were given even more precious, their experiences dealing regularly with government agency and the expectation of their becoming teachers to an anonymous public provoked periodic sadness and frustration. The absence of personal connection with a mass audience interested in consuming an image of an ‘authentic’ non-western Filipino culture was unnerving for the weavers” (72).

While the absence of external intervention and support for the weaving artists scuttles the progress of indigenous art, the myopically designed support could be equally alienating in its implications.

This is a predominantly women’s enterprise, with men appearing only as secondary players or in the background as seafarers, as historically significant political actors, and as nodal points in the phenomenon of weaving. Hence, there is the possibility here of an alternative feminism. This is the third significant moot motif that attracts the attention of the readers of this book. The reason why it could be taken as alternative feminism is its indifference to male characters rather than any hostility or shifting of blame to the men folk. For example, in spite of constant prodding, the Madurese weaver Siti remains tightlipped, and Dapong of Sarawak pokerfaced, yet unsullied by any animosity whatsoever. Divorced, widowed, spinster, remarried, even the happily married, the female protagonists in the large canvas of Southeast Asian weavers present a striking sense of independence and autonomy. Nevertheless, they are the anchorage between this world and the other world through their woven fabrics. If there is any relation with the men folk, it is on an equal footing; as Iba says in the case of Sarawak, “Men take heads, and we women make cloth.” In other narrative instances in this book, sometimes explicit and mostly implicit, there is a sense of gendered egalitarianism, at least in terms of mobility, struggle, art and craft, and pleasure and agony. There is an irony, however, in the social contradiction tied to social stratification dividing the social world into clans, castes, classes, and status levels. Thus, the weaving women weave a relation with the eternal spirits as well as with normative society on behalf of all who belong to their communities.

In closing, I’d suggest that the strategic avoidance of the conceptual and epistemological nitty-gritty in the project derives, as well, from a fogginess in the book about issues of tradition and modernity in the age of economic and cultural globalization. The notable gaps in the interstitial analysis during the presentation of narratives by the anthropologists provoke criticism in the reader. However, the rich foreground of the book, with engaging fabric art laced with stunning tales, ultimately disarms this critique.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.