Sandra giving a copy of Legacy to twiners in Kaban Jahe

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Sandra Niessen - current interests and activities

In a recent publication for the Wisdom Conference in Yogyakarta, I wrote, “Fully half of the languages on the face of the earth are destined to disappear within the next two generations, their cultural matrixes having collapsed. The implications of this projection are too massive to fathom, yet we hear more about threatened species than we do about the devastating loss of human cultural heritage. Local wisdom, like language and craft, requires a vibrant cultural matrix to survive. Where are the expressions of concern?  Today there are more anthropologists, most of them cultural anthropologists, than ever before in history (there are 11,000 members of the American Anthropological Association alone). Clearly, something has gone very awry and needs to be addressed...

While I was writing Legacy, I witnessed the rapid decline in the Batak weaving arts. I knew that weavers needed access to information about their tradition. In 2010, I completed a project that I called Back to the Villages. With the sponsorship of friends, family, colleagues and others who believed in the project, I brought 40 copies of Legacy in cloth to Batak weavers and their families in North Sumatra. In addition to expressing my thanks for their help, I wanted to give them access to their own textile heritage, little of which is to be found anymore in North Sumatra. That project has brought me in touch with many who are talking about and planning revival programs among the Batak. I am available to help them fight for the survival of this culture which has become so dear to me.

One of the most remarkable reactions to the Back to the Villages project has been that of MJA Nashir, a talented Indonesian sociologist, writer and photographer. He was witness to almost the entire project because I contracted him to document it visually. He recognized the importance of the return of cultural heritage as well as the need to inspire weavers to have pride in their work. Independently of me, he decided to write about the Back to the Villages project for for an Indonesian audience. His book, Berkelana dengan Sandra, was published in the fall of 2011. Before it appears in book form, he published it chapter by chapter as a serial on Facebook.

Since the completion of Back to the Villages, MJA Nashir and I have been working on a film about Batak weaving techniques based on an ancient Batak text, Rangsa ni Tonun. We finished a version for the Fiber Face 3 exhibition that took place in February in Yogyakarta. We hope to complete the final version during the course of 2012. This project is also aimed to instill pride in the weavers. We plan to bring our film to them in just the same way we brought my book to them. A second Back to the Villages project is in the offing!

In 2010 I had the opportunity to guide staff of the very successful Threads of Life and YPBB to the Batak area and they have begun their magical work of helping weavers re-capture their dye recipes and weaving techniques. I am excited about possibilities of working with them further.

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