Through my work at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London I have focused on the traditional arts in many parts of the world and how they can be made meaningful and contemporary, if only to survive and hopefully even to flourish for the next generations. In every stitch, weave, or bead that is put together as it has always been, there is a story that is the wellspring of pride and cultural identity for a community, a people, a nation.
In modern times, making traditional art contemporary is quite a challenge. Oftentimes the forms are maintained but the symbolism, meaning and harmony that are meant to be timeless are dissipated by many factors. Even the forms are warped with no understanding of the value of balance and symmetry; and those are the repositories of universal knowledge, our intangible wealth.
On a recent visit to Lake Sebu -- my third visit in a span of 20 years -- and a closer look at the T’boli, I was able to observe how in the Philippine context it is possible to translate traditional arts into contemporary products without compromising cultural identity and sense of pride. I discovered an enterprise that looks at a product that can be proffered to a global market based on adherence to principles on various levels: the social; the cultural; the economic.
Even in the least developed parts of the country, economic considerations are major. Each mother and father aspires to send the young children to school or the older ones to work abroad for a better future, even at the expense of turning their backs on their community and culture. Economic livelihood sometimes becomes key in the promotion of traditional arts and cultural heritage.
A woman leader at the Blaan community in Lamlifew, Malungon, Sarangani told us that young women in their community prefer to work in the fields and earn money than to apprentice as weavers with the community’s master weaver. Hence, the ikat weaving tradition of the Blaan could be under threat of extinction, at least in this village. There are only three active weavers there and they are well advanced in age. Whether this was particular only to this community or more widespread is uncertain, but having spoken with many women -- yes, mostly women -- in different parts of the world -- Budapest, Lebanon, Brunei, Nigeria, Egypt, just a few of the places that I can recall -- and even in the Philippines, this seems to be a growing trend.
But economics shouldn’t be the moving force in the promotion of tradition and culture. Many driven by economics are already inappropriately using traditional materials. The markets are replete with “indigenous” products of questionable value. Some can be quite charming if not amusing, but others are straight out tacky and probably hurriedly put together. At the other end of the spectrum, there are quality handcrafted products inspired by tradition that affirm the artisan’s culture and heritage and enlighten the end user. I am one of those end users; hence, this visual story of my most recent visit to Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.
These are young T’boli women who are applying their traditional skills in embroidery and beadwork to contemporary high-end garments. Many of them are mothers. All of them are proud of being T’boli. The patterns they embroider are traditionally T’boli. The color palette they are now using may not be strictly traditional, but the ladies seem to be comfortable with the sense of harmony they find in the color and composition.
These women do not work in a factory setting; they work at home. They came together because their mentor and the founder of the clothing brand they produce had come to see them. She has brought them garments to embellish and the materials with which to do this. The young T’boli women need not worry about the base material for their craft. They need only to keep their stitching tight and precise. The former is in consideration of the end user who would not appreciate a snag on her dress. This is also good quality control, in marketing parlance, but it is also a challenge to the skill, discipline and consistency of the women. They learn and they earn. Their mentor admits that she also learns a lot from the T’boli. While in an enterprise setting, the relationship also works as a cultural exchange.
They do not need to clock in or out for work; they are paid per stitch. When asked how to meet orders, especially as the demand for these garments increase, their mentor simply discusses the situation with them and those who are willing to meet the demand do so. Others may have other commitments at home, in the field, or the community and they are free to opt out of the schedule. The mentor-entrepreneur understands the socio-cultural dimension of working with women who still abide by the customs and traditions of their tribe. Those who are able to produce more for any given project, are given an incentive, a bonus, so to speak, but no one is forced to do any work that they do not have the time for. In another community, I was told, this entrepreneur waited almost a year to be called back to receive the work that she had given the women in that particular community.
On my visit, there was an occasion when all the women artisans gathered in a community hall. They came together not only to receive their bonuses, but also to learn about the new order and share some of their recent experiences. One requisite for the afternoon was to come in their traditional dress, complete with accessories. Apparently, one of their goals is to be able to acquire a complete set of their traditional attire. It was also nice to see them working on their stitching while waiting. Their mentor had given some of them new fabrics to test for appropriateness to the material. Some of the mothers brought their infants with them.
Apart from the order of business for the afternoon, there was also a contest. The group of women with the most complete and attractive traditional dress was awarded a prize to be shared among them. The judging was done collectively.
Angeline is the young woman in the foreground in the photo above. She returned to Lake Sebu after her father had sent her to work overseas. She is one of the artisans who are very proud of what they are doing now. No longer working as an overseas domestic or factory worker to help her family she feels that her dignity has been restored by working as an artisan who executes the craftsmanship that her people are known for.
The T’boli have several active weaving centers with Master Weavers to guide young apprentices. We visited the Weaving Center of Yab Mann and were welcomed so warmly and graciously with traditional songs and dances. It was here that we met experienced weavers and saw some fine T’nalak. They are proud of their weaving center, which also serves as a community center. Yab Mann”s Weaving Center is only one of the local institutions that promote the cultural heritage of the T’boli. Other weavers, the most well known of whom being Lang Dulay, a national treasure, have also established their centers and continue to promote T’palak weaving.
Lake Sebu is blessed with the only School of Indigenous Knowledge and Tradition recognized by the Philippine Department of Education. Graduates of this primary and secondary school are accepted in the country’s public education system. The SIKAT school is also under enormous financial strain. surviving only through the dedication of its volunteers and the generosity of benefactors and supporters. It is one school where the traditional culture of the T’boli is integrated in the national curriculum. Their accreditation with the Department of Education was not something given to them. It was something they worked for and attained without any external intervention. The weaving centers and the school are vehicles for sustaining the T’boli heritage and knowledge. They are important institutions not only for the T’boli, but also for the country as a whole.
As a whole, the T’boli are a cheerful and friendly people and apparently as peaceful as the tranquil setting of Lake Sebu. They are also creative and ingenious in transforming their brassware into wonderful bells in all sizes, some which are worn in tribal dress or used to adorn horses as well houses. They adapt to modern necessities in clever and ingenious ways. Perhaps the most visible evidence is the habalhabal, the motorcycles with extensions to fit as many people in. They are the most practical way of getting up and about the mountains and dirt roads. This may not be unique to the T’bolis, but it is a feature that cannot be missed.
Music, dance, nature and art all blend to make the T’boli experience a delight for any visitor. It is not difficult to get there, and if one is willing to “rough it” so to speak, there are a number of inns and lodges surrounding Lake Sebu offering the most fabulous views. Accommodations are basic and comfortable. The food is generally good, especially the tilapia fish dishes that are prepared in many different ways. A two-day three-night visit is enough to get an overview of the culture and people.