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The author wearing heirloom tenun, paired with kawung-patterned batik from Jogjakarta to acknowledge her birthplace (Photo provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

The Almost-Death of Bunga Perang

Resurrecting a clan’s tenun ikat tradition from the edge of extinction

By Grace Tan-Johannes

Aspart of the Rotinese diaspora, from East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) in eastern Indonesia, I frequently hear the saying, “A woman of NTT heritage shouldn’t marry unless she knows how to weave a cloth.” A decade ago, my mother and I would have laughed and said, “Only a dinosaur would say that!”

My grandmother, Ati “Oma” Johannes-Amalo, was the last tenun ikat weaver in my family. Even then she only made one cloth as a prerequisite for marriage. My mother — the first generation born in Java — has never spun cotton threads, fermented indigo dye, or resist-tied our ancestor’s motifs. Neither have I, an urban brat raised on fast fashion and glossy magazines. If we had kept our tenun ikat traditions, Mama and I would have inherited the birthrights to weave our ancestral motifs.

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The only heirloom cloth in our possession is an antique tenun ikat bearing the bunga perang motif. My great-grandmother, Cornelia “Oyang” Amalo-Kedoh of Leli, Termanu, Central Rote, weaved it in the 1950s. My mother met Oyang Leli twice, a solid-built aristocrat with an uncanny resemblance to Oma. I only see her in monochromatic portraits, wearing the heirloom cloth whose motifs still mark our family’s identity today.

I have worn Oyang Leli’s cloth on three occasions: my master’s completion ceremony, my betrothal, and the cover photo shoot of my book in progress. The only time I’ve seen Mama and Papa wear a full tenun ikat attire — on loan from their parents and relatives — was in their wedding photo from 1982. “Once in a lifetime is enough for being a clown,” my father, a Chinese Indonesian man unfamiliar with all these traditions, would laugh with Mama.

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The author’s parents on their wedding day, and with the author wearing kain woven by Oyang Leli (Photos provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

When traditions find new life

I developed similar attitudes for the first two decades of my life. My parents had been raised to suppress their ethnic identities to become “Indonesians,” and in turn they raised me to “go international.” Traditions became an irritating inconvenience as we struggled to reconcile our complicated multicultural background by proudly embracing a Third Culture Kid identity. After all, ancestral customs are of lesser importance for our survival in a competitive acultural globalsphere that values professional competence, innovation, adaptation and material wealth.

My attitude changed around 2009, as I became acquainted with the revival of pre-Indonesian heritage in the contemporary creative industry. I see transformation in the political drama and poetic dances of Javanese wayang captivating film audiences, in the Bornean flutes and Sundanese drums mystifying an experimental jazz performance, and in batik and bamboo basketries beautifying international fashion runways.

After spending my life being allergic to tradition, this became the turning point where I found myself saying, “This is the kind of Indonesian I am!” When traditions find new life in contemporary creativity, I do not feel judged for my urban education and my disposition for challenging customary conventions in the interest of innovation. I see spaces where traditions are not burdens of the past, but a contemporary presence brimming with distinction and pride. I also see opportunities for the heirs of traditions across Indonesia to collaborate with urban innovators trained to thrive in the global creative economy, advancing and prospering together.

I aspire to contribute to this wave of cultural transformation. But there’s a catch. Nearly all the innovators I admire are transforming the cultures of their original ethnicity. Basing whatever I want to create on a particular culture can be tricky. I feel like a clueless student staring at the dotted lines of an exam question I can’t answer.

Which tradition should I base my work on when my parents identify with different cultures and live in places other than the “ancestral homeland?”

My ancestral knowledge does not lie in books or the internet, but in the minds of elders who are dying faster than I can catch them. Even if I find an elder who is able to teach me, indigenous knowledge is often very specific to the context of particular homelands I’ve never lived in.

Filling in the blanks

So I promised the universe to embark on a journey over land and sea to my grandparents’ birthplace in Rote in East Nusa Tenggara. I undertook this journey in 2013, parts of which are documented in my travel memoir in progress, Tales from the Southern Isles.

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This journey led me to the man I’m now married to, Andra Fembriarto. An Indonesian fantasy filmmaker, Andra has a complicated relationship with his Javanese heritage and more naturally identifies with Jakarta’s contemporary creative industry. My hunch about a future with him happened when he said that being an urban Indonesian raised away from one’s native roots shouldn’t disqualify one’s efforts to care about and foster pride in your Indonesian heritage.

That same year, I observed the making of tenun ikat for the first time at Sentra Tenun Ikat Lepo Lorun in Sikka, Flores. The Lepo Lorun team demonstrated cotton spinning, indigo dyeing, and ikat weaving. During my visit, my host Alfonsa Horeng taught me that tenun ikat is not just a commodity to satisfy market demand and put food on the “craftswoman’s” table — she hates the C-word with a passion.

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Mama Gonda (at Sentra Tenun Ikat Lepo Lorun) demonstrates manually spinning cotton wool into a thread, preparing indigo leaves for fermentation, and natural indigo dyeing in a Sikkanese traditional dyehouse (Photos provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

It turns out that tenun ikat is a comprehensive indigenous knowledge system covering ethnobotany, biochemistry, ecology, economics, spirituality, art, oral literature, language, and the community’s socio-political order.

More than just about governing a household’s primary needs of clothing, food, and shelter, the knowledge of tenun ikat is embedded with the human responsibility to care for the natural world and sustain life.

This knowledge system may not be written in academic textbooks or mathematical formulae, but it is expressed in the creation of handmade fabrics bearing the unique identities of the mothers, daughters and ancestors making them. This is why Alfonsa calles her weavers at Lepo Lorun “Las Profesoras.”

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Breakfast with Alfonsa Horeng at Sentra Tenun Ikat Lepo Lorun. Alfonsa holds a plate of bolo plagar, engagement cookies coloured with natural dye, made to match a bride-to-be’s ikat motif.

Although Lepo Lorun represents a culture other than my own, I felt as though my departed ancestors were present with Alfonsa and Las Profesoras, conveying lessons about the values they once lived by. It is not enough to create a market for “handicrafts” made by “industrious craftswomen,” or to deliver motivational talks to talk young villagers out of their “reluctance” to continue practicing tenun ikat. Perpetuating tenun ikat concerns the fight for keeping the spaces for the entire indigenous knowledge system alive: the natural ecosystem, the cultural economy, and self-determination, especially in women’s leadership.

It is these values represented in my ancestor’s tenun ikat knowledge systems that I wish to revive through my journalistic work and other collaborations. This is the answer to that blank exam question I’d been struggling with. Unfortunately, the answer died together with Oyang Leli before I was even born. And although Oma was still with us until last year, my drive to save what’s left of my ancestors’ knowledge only developed a dozen years after dementia started eating up my grandmother’s mind.

Despite being in an intercultural marriage, my husband is my reminder that even urbanites matter when it comes to caring about cultural struggles. We may not have much customary authority, but our knowledge of the media and the contemporary creative industry may open up spaces for people to care and take pride in the cultures we fight for. And no matter what culture our audiences come from, they are welcome to collaborate in ways that could make little changes that add up.

Reweaving the past

In this spirit, Andra and I designed our Indonesian wedding attire to represent all the cultures our families identify with. Carrying the family mandate to preserve Oyang Leli’s ikat motif, I came to Kupang in February 2017 to commission replicas of the Amalo heirloom for the wedding. Commissioning this heirloom replica has been a bittersweet experience for me.

In Kupang, my relatives competitively offered their recommendations for the cheapest weavers they have worked with. I examined many disappointing replica samples in my relatives’ possession, often with miscalculated ikat patterning and bright tacky colours. Trying them on felt like wearing counterfeits commissioned for the sake of existing, void of the values and knowledge system that brought this culture to life in the minds and hearts of my ancestors.

“If I allowed more time and increase the price significantly, could I ask your weaver to make my cloth with handspun cotton threads and natural dye?” I tried to negotiate with a relative who lent me replica samples.

“Unfortunately that wouldn’t be possible, Grace,” the relative replied. “It’s not so much about the cost, as it is about the fact that these young weavers have never learned to spin cotton threads and prepare natural dyes.”

The reflection of this counterfeit cloth in the mirror brought up sadness and regret of a culture dying before my eyes. I wondered whether I would ever raise my future children to someday care about the motherland — and here I am, unable to produce the fabric that embodies our cultural identity.

Marrying outside the culture and living in diaspora also means there is always a possibility that my children may not identify with the Rotinese culture I call my own, and their decisions are ultimately beyond my control.

Will I be the last Rotinese-identifying generation in my family?

Customarily, Oyang Leli’s cloth should be buried with Oma when she passes on. But in the interest of keeping an unrenewable heritage, my family ended up draping another cloth on my Oma’s body. Our inability to perform this custom has been a rude awakening to the urgency of continuing the tenun ikattradition in my generation.

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Mama Dorce Lusi (Photo provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

My uncle Denny Johannes, who works for the NTT Social Department, eventually introduced me to Dorce Lusi, a Ndaonese weaver he used to train. Now a successful businesswoman in her fifties, Dorce is best known as the owner of Ina Ndao — a tenun ikat superstore in Kupang, flaunting extensive collections of tenun ikat and related products from all over NTT.

As I unfolded the heirloom cloth, Mama Dorce immediately recognized the Amalos’ bunga perang and recounted other Amalos who have recently commissioned her. Mama Dorce taught me that my heirloom bore the motifs of three clans: Amalo, Johannes and Kedoh — meaning that Oyang Leli specifically wove this to mark my Oma’s identity as Mrs Johannes, who was born an Amalo from a Kedoh mother.

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Close up of the bunga perang kain woven by Oyang Leli (Photo provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

When commissioning a replication of a family heirloom, a key concern is the possibility that non-related weavers might abuse the family-specific knowledge they now possess, and release the clan’s motif for sale to the public market. As Indonesian tenun ikat clan motifs are not yet protected by collective intellectual property laws, commissioning replicas requires trust among the parties involved.

Mama Dorce was upfront about the extra cloths she makes when commissioned to produce a family heirloom. She holds onto them in case customers from the right clan need it fast, for instance for a funeral or for a ceremony to welcome guests on short notice.

While Mama Dorce does not usually work with traditional threads, in my case she made the effort to calculate the ikat pattern with precision, pick synthetic dyes that closely matched Oyang Leli’s natural colours, and instructed her best weavers to work on the order professionally.

With Oom Denny’s help, who visited Ina Ndao once a week to check up on our order’s progress, Andra and I documented the production process on our Instagram accounts.

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Preparing the resist-tied threads for dyeing (Photos provided by Grace Tan-Johannes)

Our order took three months to produce, with results we are happy with. While this is an imperfect effort to preserve the memory of my ancestors, I am happy to know that I have done what I can for now.

Answering a calling

Commissioning this replica has come with reflections on the future of my family heirloom.

On the one hand, this collaboration with Ina Ndao has been a wake-up call. All the things they did for this order should have been my job. I am lucky to be able to pay a team of professional weavers who happened to understand and honour my family’s customary protocols. But I don’t know if they will still be around to help my children when their time comes. Ultimately, passing on the traditional knowledge of tenun ikat to my descendants will be my responsibility.

On the other hand, I also find hope that despite my limitations, there are ways to deliver this responsibility and unite people fighting a common struggle.

So why don’t I just learn how to weave? Well, it’s complicated. If I commit to mastering tenun ikat, I may have to put my career on hold for a few years to learn a new skill with all its uncertainties. What if I never manage to become “good enough” at it? What if after giving up so many opportunities to advance my career, I end up unable to support myself on tenun ikat alone? And even if I turned out to be a good weaver, I would never be able to replicate the knowledge generated from Oma and Oyang Leli’s experiences living in the Rotinese landscapes of their times.

It seems that I’d be better off using the same time and energy to focus on what I already do best — journalism and research — so that one day I could use these to advocate for a cause I deeply care about.

I won’t pretend to be able to “help” anyone. I am simply answering a deeply personal calling to preserve the memory of my ancestors’ knowledge, and the identity it has imprinted in me. Transforming the knowledge embedded in my ancestor’s cloth into values that are relevant for Indonesian society today is what I could do as a writer who lives in between many cultures.

Will my family have an original cloth again? It depends how one defines “original.” I define it as a cloth bearing my ancestors’ motif, made by a descendant who inherits the customary weaving rights, using handspun cotton threads and traditional natural dye, involving a learning process of the identity shaped by the natural world and culture that my ancestors lived in. While it would be impossible to ressurrect the knowledge of my ancestors who have returned to the universe, I believe the next best solution is a collaboration to transform its records and reflections into my contemporary work.

Collaborating, creating, protecting

I doubt if I will ever weave an entire cloth with my own hands. But I could make it by collaborating with different communities in East Nusa Tenggara, who could contribute to any of the “originality” aspects I defined for the cloth. This could mean having one community spin the threads, another to resist-tie the motif, and others still to do the dyeing and weaving. In return, and as part of my cultural learning process, I could use my journalism to help record their knowledge for future use and recognition.

When I make this future original cloth happen, I would be open to making it a space for interethnic and interisland collaborations within NTT. A collaborative cloth could become a statement of the Third Culture Kid’s spirit, which in addition to returning to the ancestors’ homeland, also comes to unite the region’s communities in a common fight to keep their heritages alive.

If Oma’s cloth combined the motif of her clan with that of her mother and her husband, perhaps my cloth should become the first in this family to represent unity with other cultures — my father’s, my husband’s and the cultures participating in the collaboration.

Through live-in arrangements, I plan to acquaint myself with snapshots of the natural worlds and social systems which give life to the participating cultures. My journalistic work could create a space for reflecting the futures of participating communities and amplifying their striving for cultural survival.

I hope such a collaboration could also save some young people from knowing the kind of regret I live with when my ancestors left this side of existence before I had a chance to learn from them.

Another dream of mine is to fight for collective customary intellectual property protection for Indonesia’s weaving clans. I am still figuring out the whats, whos and hows of this fight, especially being mindful of the potential controversies that could arise with the good intention of copyrighting tradition. But I believe even traditional customs must continue to transform themselves into current reincarnations, and customary intellectual property rights could be a first step in reclaiming the cultural economy of a given homeland. Such customary intellectual property laws are already in effect in countries such as Guatemala and New Zealand.

A lifelong learning process

Today, how do I respond to the old saying, “A woman of NTT heritage shouldn’t marry unless she knows how to weave a cloth?”

I believe the point is not about the weaving itself, but about the entire system of knowledge embedded in it.

When Oma was a young woman, “knowing how to weave a cloth” implied that a woman has acquired the capability to manage the primary needs of her households, to fulfull her responsibilities as a productive member of society and an heir of her ancestors’ natural world, and to express this body of knowledge eloquently into a work of her hands, bearing the unique identities of her person, her family, and her homeland.

Today’s women of NTT attain such competence and respect through many other fields: academic education, professional achievements, entrepreneurship, creativity and advocacy. I believe the point of all this “progress” should be a heightened conscience to care for cultural survival — for Las Profesoras throughout Indonesia who choose to keep weaving on our behalf in this age of acculturized individual competition. The rest is figuring out how to transform the process and cultural values of tenun ikat into a current cultural development, and upholding the memories of the ancestors who developed this heritage of knowledge in their time.

I may never become a weaver. However, as a woman of NTT heritage, I forbid myself from becoming ignorant in tenun ikat. I am embarking on a lifelong learning process of transforming my ancestors’ knowledge into values that are relevant to my generation’s needs, in ways I am most capable of adding value.

Grace Tan-Johannes is a freelance journalist, researcher and development consultant currently working for clients in forestry, environmental monitoring and labour rights. Since ditching the newsroom in 2012 and pledging to travel Indonesia by land and sea between 2013–2016, Grace has been working on Fairy Tales from the Southern Isles — a travel memoir attempting to understand the Indonesian identity through the eyes of a Third Culture Kid not welcome in her grandparents’ hometown. After years of building her case among relatives for a Rote homecoming, she plans to finally visit her grandparents’ birthplace with extended family in 2019.

Kain Kita

Telling stories through the indigenous and traditional…

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