Rita Bolland from the back cover of Rita Bolland 1919-2006

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Sandra Niessen - Rita Bolland
Rita Bolland (1919-2006): Curator of Textiles - cover

Rita Bolland (1919-2006): Curator of Textiles

Sandra Niessen (ed.) with contributions by Itie van Hout, Willie Jager-Ruchti and Gusta van der Leegte

2009, Amsterdam: KIT Publishers (from whom copies may be purchased) ISBN 9789068327502, Price € 25.00.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Legacy in Cloth would not have its present form were it not for the influence and guidance of Rita Bolland. I met Rita in 1980 upon my return from my first period of field research in North Sumatra. I had switched my dissertation topic at the last moment from magic bark books of the Batak to their textiles but had no background in the phenomenon of cloth and weaving. Beyond the words warp and weft, the only weaving terms I knew were the ones I had learned in Batak villages and I did not know their Dutch and English equivalents. My advisor, Professor PE. de Josselin de Jong, advised me to get in touch with Rita, Curator of Textiles at the Tropenmuseum.

Rita readily and patiently instructed me. She was most respectful of what I had discovered among the Batak. She understood that I needed to translate my findings and did not try to school me in the Western weaving tradition. She was flexible and open to alternatives, intensely aware that the translation of weaving vocabulary between cultures is a ticklish and subtle undertaking. I was to learn from Rita’s publications that precisely this respectful sensitivity to cultural differences characterizes her contribution to the study of cross-cultural textiles. She had an inquiring, open mind and a deep admiration for the ingenious technical inventions made by weavers through the millennia.

Rita Bolland became a member of my examination committee when I defended my my doctorate (1985). Afterwards, I moved away from The Netherlands. When I moved back in 2001, fate put us together in the same village of Oosterbeek, the home of my ancestors and of the only vegetarian seniors’ home in The Netherlands. Rita was vegetarian. Her parents had spent their final years here and now it was her turn. We met up occasionally for tea and talks about weaving techniques, her great passion. She had what she called her “weaving friends” with whom she could share this passion, but while she was active and had many friends in The Vegetarian Centre, there was nobody there with whom she could talk about weaving techniques. I shared her predicament, and we enjoyed our tea parties together.

Her years were advancing and Rita was being forced to face the fact that she would have to move to the main building, Felixoord, to get a higher level of care. It was a difficult decision for her because she loved her independence, and also because she knew that this move would be her last. She put off the final move for as long as she could; there were so many odds and ends that needed to be looked after, and her new room was smaller than her bungalow, meaning that she would have to divest herself of many of her beloved possessions. Rita was a careful person who needed to supervise every detail. Maintaining her usual high standard was now an exhausting and stressful prospect.

I suggested to her that I be her arms and legs, that she only need to say what she wanted to have done, and I would do it. She did not like to lean too heavily on others so I became one of several people who assisted her.  I valued these times with her because I admired her greatly. I welcomed this last chance to get to know her a little better.

As we went through her drawers and closets and chests making various piles — this for the family, this for goodwill, that for recycling (she hated to waste anything), and a very tiny pile for her new room (she limited this very strictly) — she shared her stories about her possessions with me. She was reviewing her life one last time. I felt the momentousness and significance of this move for her, and realized that, for her, sharing the stories was a big part of this rite of passage. I found myself wishing that I could record it all. She was feeling, very keenly, that she had no immediate inheritors (Rita never married) and that there was no daughter to cherish what she had collected and saved during her life. Besides, this was her identity! This was her learning! She had devoted her life fully and intensely to those publications and textile projects. And now she had to dispose of it all. I think that she had some very lonely moments during the period of her move.

I felt the need to reassure her over and over again about the value of her work, how important it was for all of us interested in weaving techniques. Rita was a feminist before her time. She recognized that textile techniques had been unfairly side-lined in the West because they are women’s work, even though in many indigenous societies around the world, especially in the past, the respect for textile crafts has been great. One day, perhaps the penny would finally drop, and even in the West the significance of weaving techniques to the study of society and history would be recognized. Rita knew, and regretted, that were that ever to be the case, it would be after her time.

I saw in her what I had seen among indigenous weavers in Sumatra: the conviction that they do sophisticated and useful work, but sadness at the general lack of recognition for their accomplishments.

And so I made her a proposal: a book about her contribution to textile studies, a publication that would pull it all together. She liked the plan. I hoped that it would make the move from her bungalow to her last room a little bit easier. Something to live for. A sense that not all was being dissipated and lost.

Initially, I had in mind publishing her collected works, but this was too ambitious. We settled on a complete bibliography of her publications.

 A short biography of her life was also indispensable to such a volume so we spent many afternoons together in which I wrote down what she told me about her childhood. We didn’t get as far as we wanted. She left our midst, quite suddenly (mercifully), just as our collaborative project about her insights into textile production techniques was well and truly getting underway. 

When I told her closest friends and colleagues about our undertaking, support was imediately forthcoming. They also recognized the need to highlight Rita’s contributions to textile scholarship. Her devoted “weaving friends” felt that Rita had given of her insights so bounteously, passionately and convincingly that it had enriched and changed their lives. Her colleagues at the Tropenmuseum were aware of the magnitude and uniqueness of what she had given to the museum and its publics during her 37 years of full-time, on-going service. Their wishes have helped to shape this publication. It now sheds a broader light on Rita as the well-rounded person that she was: teacher, needleworker, knitter and weaver, friend and colleague and person with roots in tempo dulu, as well as textile scholar who made significant contributions to her field.

The first copy of Rita Bolland (1919-2006): Curator of Textiles was presented to her brother Hans during an intimate launch in the Tropenmuseum on 25 March, 2009.

In November 2009, the book will be officially presented to Felixoord, the home where Rita spent her last years.

Itie van Hout is curator of textiles at the Tropenmuseum. In 1986 she became Rita Bolland’s successor to the position.

Willie Jager-Ruchti is a weaver who has taught weaving since 1976. In 1980-1981, she trained under Rita Bolland to become a guide to the textile exhibitions in the Tropenmuseum. She has extensively travelled to Indonesia, Japan, Peru and Thailand to pursue her study of textile techniques.

Gusta van der Leegte is a textile artist who completed a three-year programme in the art of weaving in Gent, Belgium. Together with Willie Jager-Ruchti, she documented all of the ikat textiles in the Vlisco Museum in Helmond (Netherlands), and was a member of the jury that judged traditional ikat textiles in Sintang, Kalimantan (Indonesia).

Legacy in cloth - Woven Worlds - Rita Bolland - Gardener's House - Back to the villagesBergord Publishing - Collection