Leo Schenk, Director of the Tropenmuseum and joint host of the launch of 'Legacy of Cloth' in the Soeterjin theatre at the Tropenmuseum on 15 May 2009

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Sandra Niessen - news - 2009
2009 has been a year of boundless relief and perpetual excitement. (Detailed list of events.)

The highlight was the publication of my “life’s work”, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia. Finally, after so many years. Most of 2009 has been devoted in one way or another to that book.

The launch in mid-May came on the heels of heroic effort, especially on the part of the book designer, Marie-Cécile Noordzij-Pulles. We had worked feverishly to finish the lengthy tome by the deadline set by the funding agencies. And so the launch, in the Souterrain Theatre housed in the Tropenmuseum, was a great celebration. Paul Hutagalung and his dancers provided a splash of local colour, music and a sphere seldom encountered outside North Sumatra. Friends, family and colleagues filled the room with a special, warm energy and it was an occasion in which I could thank publicly and in style some of the many people who had helped me throughout the years, including: Pamela Cross, Lejo Schenk, the Director of the Tropenmuseum, Sandra Fearon who had assisted me with the descriptions of the weaving techniques, the funders NWO and the Prince Bernhard Fund, the publisher, Harry Poeze, designer Cécile Noordzij and Jan Hofstede. I also chose to honour the weavers in North Sumatra through their representative in The Netherlands, the Ambassador of Indonesia, and the admirable goals and activities of the Indonesian NGO, Threads of Life, that works valiantly and cleverly to preserve indigenous weaving practices.

There was no subsequent period of rest because of the need to grab every opportunity to promote the book. The first event was a speaking engagement at the Tongtong Fair (formerly Pasar Malam Besar) in The Hague. That was followed in September by speaking engagements in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle in the USA and Vancouver and Calgary in Canada. After having been holed up in front of my computer for so very long, it was exhilarating to once again be in the midst of colleagues, out in the museum world, and back in North America. Cheri Hunter, who co-ordinated the speaking engagements for me, had asked me to design my lectures so that my audience would forever after know how to recognize a Batak textile from ten yards away and so I focused on the principles of Batak textile design as illustrated by numerous examples. It was tremendously exciting to see the wonderful cloths that members of the audience brought in for show-and-tell.

I was no sooner back in The Netherlands than I had to pack my bags again and take the train up to Amsterdam where I had been invited to present a talk at the Tribal Art Fair. Two days later, I was on the ferry making my way to London where (thanks to the efforts of Diccon and Lesley Pullen) I had the great honour of speaking at Asia House on the occasion of Asian Art in London 2009. My talk ventured into the area of cultural sustainability. We seldom realize that we are losing powerful historical “documents” when indigenous weaving techniques disappear, to say nothing of the cultural traditions that are wrapped up in designs and techniques. These have been important themes at Asia House.

Since then, I have thrown my efforts into finishing the Chronicles of the Zweiers Valley, a local history book about one of the most-often illustrated buildings in the town of Oosterbeek: The Gardener’s House associated with an erstwhile estate (where I now live) called Bergoord.

In November, we presented our book about Rita Bolland, former curator of textiles at the Tropenmuseum, to her nursing home, Felixoord, a lasting memento to her friends there of this extraordinary resident. I was joined by her “weaving friends”, a group that had originally come together at Rita’s behest to serve as knowledgeable guides to non-Western textiles in the Tropenmuseum. They continued to meet for decades to share their knowledge and insights; this was probably the last time that they would ever meet as Rita’s club. While I was writing the book and preparing this launch, I especially got to know Willie Jager-Ruchti and Gusta van der Leegte and my appreciation for these wonderful women, their skills and their dedication, grew and grew. 

The first launch of our Rita-book had been organized by Itie van Hout eight months earlier at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. It was a festive, warm and intimate affair for her friends, family and colleagues at the museum.  Everytime I have presented a lecture this year, I have been sure to mention Rita’s important contribution to the study of textile techniques. She was my mentor and guide, and I have felt obligated to draw attention to what she experienced as her calling in life.

As the year draws to a close, I am gearing up to go to three more fairs: Arts of Pacific Asia in San Francisco and New York, and the Tribal Art and Textiles Fair in San Francisco. These are my most important venues for distributing Legacy to collectors, dealers and aficionados. And then I will finally be able to turn my sights to Indonesia. I hope that the fall of 2010 sees me back in the villages of North Sumatra meeting up again with the weavers who have come to mean so much to me. (See a Kaleidoscope of what happened from June 2010 - December 2011).