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Bena and Bajawa, Central Flores

Here we are in Central Flores  – this entailed a huge and very hairy detour necessary to get round the articulated lorry which has got stuck in the road and gouged out the hillside – and we are in the realm of a new lot of people all together. They are called Ngada, they have a totally different language and perhaps because they were not so accessible to missionaries, they seem to have kept far more of their animist traditions. Maybe because they were not so influenced by traders with their European and Indian trade cloths, their ikat is very different too. The most popular design is of small white horses and triangles and other geometric shapes on a very dark deep navy or black indigo background. In Flores (just as in Sumba where the horse motif is also very important) the horse symbol is an obvious signifier of wealth.

The climate is cool and much more pleasant than the sweltering coast – we even need a blanket at night which makes a very nice change. Most people live in small villages – a collection of houses with tin roofs. But there are still around 30 traditional villages – mostly accessible only by motorbike on tiny dirt tracks through the dense forest. We got to the village of Bena which welcomes tourists for a donation to the head man (our guide, Hero the cheeky devil gave him a bottle of his mother in law’s arak whisky)

We walked to the village through a veritable forest gardener’s dream. Planted within the space of about half a mile we saw coffee, cocoa, and palm fruit (for arak and sugar) cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemon grass and chillies. Then there was the fruit, bananas (yellow and red) papaya, jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mango, avocado, candle nut, peanuts and soy beans and others which Hero didn’t know the English for but are good for medicine or other uses. In this perfect climate, high above the heat of the coast, with plenty of year round rainfall, everything needed for a good life – to eat, to drink, to make houses from, for medicine and for textile production is here.

16. The first sight of the traditonal village of Bena. The houses are grouped around a rectangular communal area with spirit houses and shrines. (640x480)The village itself came as a shock – its a definite double take to come upon this alien architecture amongst the trees. The first sight of a traditional Ngada village is almost surreal. Two rows of tall roofed houses are topped with either a male or female symbol, tall standing stones and female and male totems for each of the nine clans. In the central area there are carved poles with thatched umbrellas (the male phallic totem) and miniature huts on stilts (the female womb totem) Of course the first thing I notice is that all the houses have a weaving platform out front.

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Most of the inhabitants are either very old or very young. Many younger people just get fed up with working hard and then having nothing left to spend on themselves.

The villagers get their income from tourism and selling forest produce, but traditions dictate that almost all the income earned gets spent on elaborate ceremonies. These ceremonies eat up huge amounts of money in buying buffalo, pigs and elaborate textiles. There is no room here for the youngster who wants to buy a motorbike or other material goods with his hard earned cash.

17. Weaving in Bena village (640x507)

Textiles have always played a very important spiritual role in Ngada the rituals – they are required at all ceremonies not only as garments but also as a necessary part of the ritual. Warp ikat cloths are used as burial shrouds, in exchanges of gifts before a wedding and the designs often preserve local legends and beliefs. 

For the Ngada people there are ten grades of cloth, ranked for quality, motif and size and a weaver must be able to make cloth at each level before graduating to a higher grade textile. “Lawo Butu” cloths belong to the top grade and very few weavers are qualified to weave them. The cloth is worn by a female clan elder to dedicate a new clan shrine Some old cloths are preserved in clan treasuries for centuries until just the tattered remains are left to be draped over the main post of the shrine.*

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Mama Khaterina is one of the few weavers who still makes these cloths and she shows us two cloths she has for sale. They are unlike anything we have seen before –indigo dyed with pattern of stylised stick horses but embellished with tiny shells and ancient beads in designs of crabs and boats.

The cloths are about three times more expensive than the most expensive ikats we have seen on the coast and although they do not compete in terms of the intricacy and fineness of the design, they have such power and integrity that we are smitten. We have to go away, have lunch, think carefully and visit a cash machine in town before we can go back and make an offer. Mama Khaterina needs the money for a family member who is in hospital – otherwise she wouldn’t be selling, and when we hand over the money, her grandchildren gleefully count it out in both English and Ngada.

18. Mama Katharina wears her ceremonial ikat. (421x640)

The future for fine Flores ikat is uncertain, just as it is for all hand made textiles which require so much time and effort. In most cases, the weaver is producing cloth for herself and her family and the hours are not counted. However when people rely on it for an income, it is inevitable that compromises are made. Time consuming plant dyes are abandoned in favour of much speedier chemical dyes, more complicated designs are left behind and simpler ones take their place, machine spun yarns are used instead of hand spun. Tourists will buy ikat as a souvenir but they usually don’t bother about the more costly refinements.

“Threads of Life” is an exemplary organisation based in Bali which sets up and buys from weaving co-operatives. By marketing top end textiles and attempting to educate the buyers into recognising the value of the very best textiles, they are managing to support some weavers. This is a small but vital drop in the ocean.

The truth is that we are probably seeing the final years in the production of the best ikat from Flores, and if such a thing existed, it would go onto the textiles endangered list. Now if I can just sell what I’ve bought, I can go back and buy some more.

* Thanks to “Threads Of Life” for this information.

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