The Threads of Life team of Wenten, Willy and myself joined our collegues Cecilia, Louis, Ilda and Casiano from the Alola Foundation for a 7-day visit to Oecusi, the small enclave of Timor Leste which is surrounded by Indonesian West Timor. We went to visit weaving groups that Alola is currently working with and to assess how vibrant the traditional weaving arts are.
Oecusi, also called Ambenu after Amaf Benu, the first ruler, was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th Century and remained a colony until 1976 when it was integrated into the Republic of Indonesia’s province of East Timor. Unlike other parts of East Timor, Ambenu continued its traditional ways without upheaval until the referendum of 1999 when East Timor voted for its independence. The Indonesian military’s resistance to independence led to massive violence and destruction. Countless hamlets throughout Ambenu were burnt to the ground along with their crops and livestock. When the traditional houses were destroyed so were the textiles and other cultural artifacts that were stored within them.
Threads of Life staff, Willy Daos Kadati born in Kefamananu, West Timor had family in Oecusi who he would visit regularly when Oecusi was part of Indonesia. Willy speaks Dawan, the predominant language in Oecusi and the bordering areas of West Timor. He remembers only ten years ago when he would take toursits to Pasabe Market where men still wore traditional handspun textiles. At that time he would buy up to fifty textiles at a time from women living around the
During our visit to the Pasabe Market we found only one woman who had a handspun traditional textile for sale. Almost all of the textiles that men wore were uniform in their bright synthetic colors with large floral and religious motifs. Women continue to use a backstrap loom to produce these textiles but they look as though they could as easily be produced in factories in Java. The traditional textiles with prescribed patterns and motifs of geckos, crocodiles and fish, have all but disappeared over the ten years since Willy shopped here.
It was heartening to visit the weaving community that Alola has been working with in Taiboko along the north coast of Oecusi as here they are still producing handspun traditional textiles. The challenge we see is that the weavers are eager to produce these textiles but are more bent on quantity than quality. This is typically what Threads of Life experiences when beginning to work with new weaver groups. Over time weavers see that there is more money to be made by working slowly to make high quality textiles.
Initially the weavers insisted that the colors were all natural. After some time we discovered that weavers are still using indigo for their blue color but there is no memory of having dyed using a mordant process and Morinda roots for their red. They have used bark from an Acacia tree or bark from Morinda roots along with an overdye of a synthetic red since any of them can remember! The tannin from the barks sets the synthetic color which makes it more colorfast. I was surprised to see how good they are at imitating a Morinda red using synthetic dyes.
Looking at the bleak enviornment in Oecusi it is even more paramount that the textile production not be pushed to levels so high that it further depletes natural resources. The hillsides have been heavily deforested to grow food for subsistence as well as to feed livestock. When Oecusi was still part of Indonesia cattle were sold to Surabaya on Java. For now that overseas market is not accessible or affordable.
Life is hard in Oecusi with roads in terrible disrepair and hamlets without electricity or water. Yet the human spirit is remarkable in its desire to redefine order after chaos. Everywhere we saw traditional houses standing once again. Building a traditonal house requires little money as it is constructed using casuarina wood poles for its frame with a lontar palm roof. Both of these trees are plentiful and easy to regenerate.
It is both Threads of Life’s and Alola’s hope that the impact of our work together over the next few years will be that weavers begin to fill these houses with the type of traditional textiles that once identified the different clans of Ambenu. Textiles that reflect cultural integrity are sure to find an international market thereby providing a good and consistent income for families as well as building a renewed pride in the culture.”