The following text is from Sara Niner, courtesy of the Alola Foundation:
The back-strap loom common to Timor and surrounding islands was brought down by migrants from the Bronze-age Dongson culture in mainland South-east Asia around 500BC. Today, geometric Dongson patterning and designs from Indian cloth traded by Arabs and Europeans for slaves and spices in Timor in the second century are mixed with motifs from indigenous myth and lore such as boats and crocodiles representing the original ancestors’ journeys to the islands. Local ceremonies and rituals of birth, marriage and death employ exchange of such cloth to bind together and integrate the worlds of the living and the spirits, expressing a desire for union and balance between the two worlds. Cloth is the physical embodiment of femaleness and, as sacred Lulik objects and heirlooms, they possess special powers.
The motif here is a floral design from Portugal—the colonisers of Timor from the 16th Century until the Indonesian invasion of 1975. The designer Ofelia Neves Napoleao is the child of a Portuguese father and a Timorese mother who was the daughter of the Luirai or local king of Ainaro, Antonio Magno. In the feudal-style society of Ofelia’s childhood, Luirai families constituted the upper class ruling over a common farming people and below that, a caste of slaves. In the wet season she watched her royal grandmother, Antonieta Varradas Magno, prepare the cotton, and tie it off with palm leaves for dyeing and then in the dry season, dye and weave the finished cloth. Ofelia also learnt patterns from her fiancé’s royal family, the Napoleaos, of Oecussi, the old Portuguese enclave resting inside Dutch, now Indonesian West Timor. As the eldest grandchild of the last Luirai of Ainaro, Ofelia is accorded a certain respect and status in Timor.
These old royal elites were close to their Portuguese colonisers and, like Ofelia, spoke Portuguese. Led by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese colonialism was rooted in the glorious beginnings of the ‘Age of Discovery’ when the Portuguese set out to explore the rest of the world reclaiming millions of lost native souls for the Catholic faith while growing rich on trade and conquests. Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Spice Islands of which Timor was part early in the 16th century and Timorese myth characterized them as younger brothers, recalled to Timor by the elders of the mountains to rule in worldly affairs.
On the day of the bloody Indonesian invasion in 1975 Ofelia was a young woman forced to run zigzag across their courtyard with her little brothers to dodge bullet sprays. Fleeing the Indonesian occupation she followed her Oecussi fiancé to Perth, spending 20 years there trying to help her family in Timor, raising two sons and becoming a skilled craftswoman. After the destruction of the final Indonesian withdrawal in 1999, she returned and found her place helping local women rebuild their lives by running weaving and craft programs. She now works with the Alola Foundation managing the Taibesse Sewing Centre, in a hot and cavernous shed, part of an old Portuguese Army barracks, overseeing 25 staff sewing handbags from the hand-woven cloth. She visits weavers in the countryside and buys cloth according to the principles of fair-trade. In 2008 she prepared this loom for a Melbourne Exhibition to demonstrate the intricacy and skill of the weaving process.
Sara Niner has been researching the life of East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao for ten years and will publish his biography this year. She visited East Timor as a backpacker in August 1991 and the country and its struggle has become a big part of her life since then. Travelling around the island in 2000-1 searching out sites of significance in Gusmao’s life she found the land beautiful and solemn and beginning to soften after the immense raw devastation of 1999. She also saw how utterly exhausted the people were and the enormity of the task ahead for them and the agonising frustrating slowness of reconstruction. Yet after one trip far into the east of the country she wrote:
I was filled with euphoria and hope after a rich and emotional day of communication with people of vastly different experience that made it seem as if all things might be possible.
She has worked with the textiles and the weavers since that time to put on exhibitions, research and write about the craft and assist with a program of craft development and economic empowerment.
I feel that this half finished weaving embodies the new country of Timor-Leste where the task of rebuilding continues. Hope prevails but is often hard to sustain in the difficult post-war environment where violence and poverty mean hard lives for many women and men. Yet people continue to struggle everyday working to care for their families and communities and revive their culture.
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Sara Niner has been researching the life of East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao for ten years and will publish his biography this year. In 2003 she produced a travelling show Weaving Women’s Stories which promoted East Timorese tais, showing the strength and beauty of this traditional weaving . She now works with the Alola Foundation and is an instructional designer with the Ministry of Finance, Timor-Leste Government (RDTL). She is also completing a research project Strong Cloth in Timor-Leste: Women’s Craft and Development at Monash University.
The loom and products can be seen on display in the World of Small Things, Craft Victoria, 18 June – 27 July 2009.