Ompu Sihol teaching Sandra Niessen to weave during fieldwork in 1980

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Sandra Niessen - Magic in Batak Textiles

In 2006, when I was guest-curating the Woven Worlds exhibition at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, I wrote the following personal statement for publication on the website of Bona ni Pasogit (Association of Batak Tribes in Europe).

Exploring the Magic in Batak Textiles: A researcher's Odyssey

"Indonesia was cloaked in magic for me when I was growing up. My father had studied tropical horticulture with the intention of making his career in Indonesia. When the war dashed those plans, he went to Canada instead, where he met my mother, and where I was born (1954). He never made it to Indonesia but, like so many Dutch people, he talked about it as a Promised Land. When I was doing my Master of Arts at the University of Toronto, Professor Shuichi Nagata introduced me to a book about the Toba High God by Philip Tobing, and my fate was sealed. The book fascinated me. It made sense to pursue my interest at the University of Leiden, the mecca of Indonesian studies, and at the same time to get in touch with my Dutch roots. I started my PhD in Leiden in 1977.

In 1979, I went to Indonesia for the first time. Still influenced by Tobing’s work, I wanted to learn more about the thoughts posited in the indigenous bark books. Long strips of bark folded accordion style, they were used primarily as a memory support for Batak magicians and consulted during rites of divination, and other ritual moments. Even though I knew from my readings that the Batak world of books and divination was a man’s world, through Dutch libraries I had had full access to the extensive published literature that is to be found on Batak culture, and the implications of having chosen a ‘male topic’ didn’t really sink in until I was living in Balige (a town south of Lake Toba) in 1979. Then I learned first-hand what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. I met a datu (magician, indigenous spiritual leader) from Porsea at the annual commemoration ceremonies for the Si Singamangaraja. My Indonesian was still very rusty, but I went up to him and quietly asked if I could meet him sometime in his village. He looked at me, and asked in a loud voice, “Are you married?” I shook my head. “Would you like to marry my son?” Everyone around us laughed and I felt like anything but a researcher. I had just been very clearly told that I was cut out for other things than studying Batak magic and divination. I found my associations with Batak women easier, and their textiles were more accessible than the magic that had been in sharp decline since the advent of Christianity in the area. By the time my first year of fieldwork ended, I had changed my topic of research to Batak textiles. My dissertation is about texts and textiles; it merges the two themes. Textiles in Batak culture are quintessentially female.

Since then, I have been back to Indonesia on numerous occasions. Upon finishing my dissertation in 1985, I began a new project to document the Batak textiles stored in European museums. Initially, I expected that the task would take me little more than a year to complete. Little did I know that it would become the central work of my career. It is now (2006) 20 years later, and I am only now putting my hand to the final details of this enormous study. Someone wrote to me recently that it is not a book that I am finishing, but an odyssey. It has taken me to the depots and photograph archives of most of the ethnographic museums in Europe, and many corners of the Batak homelands. Through it, I found post-doctoral research support and employment at a university in Canada. And now the completion of the project has brought me back again to The Netherlands. The voyage has been very full.

The research has given me the opportunity to watch the development of the Batak weaving arts during an important period in its history. There is no doubt but that the Batak weaving arts are in decline. I feel privileged to have been able to assemble such a wealth of information from practising weavers – and also to watch how weavers have adapted their arts to new market and social conditions. I have been able to make extensive notes on a disappearing tradition. In published form, it will pin down for posterity one of the oldest weaving traditions in the archipelago. I hope to find support to bring copies of the volume to North Sumatra to give, with thanks, to my key weaving informants. (See Back to the villages and June 2010 blogs).

During my first year of fieldwork, I joined Sitor Situmorang as he returned to his homeland after a long absence. He was exploring his past and his identity, as is evident from his subsequent writings. To be privy to this journey was also a great privilege for me. At the time, it didn’t seem to have much to do with Batak magic or textiles, but it gave me an insider’s glimpse into the history and the geography of the region that I otherwise would not have gained. Sitor’s marga (lineage) is the hulahula or wife-giver of the Si Singamangaraja. I vividly remember standing on a hill overlooking beautiful Lake Toba while he told me how chiefs built alliances (through marriage and other ties) so that the inhabitants of the vast regions we saw surrounding Lake Toba could be counted on in strife, and to try to avoid internecine wars. I have since perceived the relevance of this political insight for Batak textile history. In my forthcoming book, Legacy in cloth: Batak textiles of Indonesia (published in 2009), I make the argument that the vast lake facilitated much interaction among the inhabitants living around its shores. The sharing with respect to design and technique took place for millennia. As a result, the local textiles (hundreds of design types) can be taken as a singular complex – despite the different languages and traditions of the Karo, Simalungun, and Toba inhabitants.

During my first period of fieldwork, I lived in Balige (at the Pendidikan Diakones close to the hospital), but I also spent time in Harian Boho where I took weaving lessons from an elderly weaver, Ompu Si Sihol. This provided me with a foundation on which to compare weaving practices everywhere I went. The second lengthy period of fieldwork took place in 1986. Then I chose to live in the Silindung Valley because weaving there was so active. Dr. Poltak Hutagalung graciously allowed me to stay in his empty house in the village of Hutagalung (he was living in Jakarta at the time). The family of my Namboru, Ompu Esther Hutagalung, agreed to be my support. Her daughter, Linda, became my assistant and accompanied me everywhere. Friendly and beautiful, she knew people everywhere, and doors opened up for us. As a weaver, she could explain many technical and also economic matters related to textiles when these were unclear. Jon, her brother, founded a business to sell locally made textiles for fashion purposes and his goods are now marketed throughout North Sumatra and beyond. The kindness and loyalty that my hosts, Sisters Nuria Gultom and Bonaria Hutabarat in Balige, and the Hutagalung family in the Silindung Valley, showed to me was an extraordinary support during fieldwork.

I also travelled extensively throughout the regions around the lake conducting surveys of textile marketing, textile design, and weaving techniques. Connections with market sellers were important for this component of the research.
After I finished the second period of fieldwork, I found employment at the University of Alberta (1987-2002). The herculean efforts of the interlibrary loan department helped me overcome my isolation there from materials on Indonesia. I continued to analyze my fieldwork findings and wrote numerous articles on the Batak weaving culture. My second book, Batak Cloth and Clothing (1993), was one of the by-products of the research. In that volume I explore why the Batak stopped wearing their indigenous clothing, and the process by which Western and Malay-style clothing became the daily norm.

This third volume (Legacy in cloth: Batak textiles of Indonesia) is a catalogue raisonné. It contains my documentation of the hundreds of textile types that I found in museums, on markets, and stored in closets in North Sumatra. All are illustrated with colour photographs. I explain the techniques by which they are made, the history of the development of their designs, and their indigenous names.

In the meantime (2006), I am thrilled to be able to work on an exhibition of Batak textiles in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The Tropenmuseum has one of the best collections of Batak textiles in the world. Since 1979, the former curator of textiles, Rita Bolland, has been one of my most important mentors in the study of textile techniques. The current curator of textiles, Itie van Hout, shares my passion for exploring the dynamic development of the indigenous Indonesian textile arts into the present day. I feel honoured to have a place in the long line of collectors, and researchers that have contributed to the illustrious history of that institution." (See Woven Worlds.)