Saturday, July 23, 2016

Wonder World of Weaves: The Textile Galleries of the National Museum

Inside the glass encasement, with its micro-weather of controlled temperature and humidity to halt further damage, the object appears to be a map of ancient lands, very different from what we know of present geography, its crannies remaining uncharted. At one point, it looks like an old puzzle, with pieces forever missing and patterns, obscured by age, at once familiar and inscrutable.
This is actually the oldest piece of textile in existence in the Philippines. Called the Banton cloth, it is estimated to be from the thirteenth to the early fourteenth century. Considered to be the earliest specimen of wrap tie-dyed textile in Southeast Asia, the Banton cloth was discovered in April 22, 1966 by a team from National Museum, after being informed by a local of cave complex, an ancient burial site, in Banton Island of the province of Rombon in Central Philippines. Inside the already disturbed cave, the team found wooden coffins, Chinese stone jars, Chinese and Siamese plates and bowls, ornaments, glass beads, turtle shell combs and the abaca cloth, which measures 74.5 centimeters in length and 75 centimeters in width. It was declared a National Cultural Treasure in 2010.
Museologist and anthropologist Ana Maria Theresa Labrador, assistant director of the National Museum of the Philippines, theorizes that the Banton cloth may be a trade object, brought to the island from other areas, even from outside of the Philippines.
On the other hand, Philippine traditional arts scholar and professor Dr. Norma Respicio, in her book Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave (2014), writes: “The interplay of plain stripes and designed bands in the Banton cloths attests to the dexterity of the textile producer in the art and technology of weaving, dyeing and ikat designing where interfaced designs are produced through the tying of certain parts of the warp yarns in a series of folds. Moreover, the designs, both the non-figurative and the figurative forms, bear social and cultural significations in traditional Philippine aesthetics.”
Which ever, the Banton cloth remains to be a mystery that tantalizes both the scholars and the layman visitors, an enigmatic gem of the National Museum (NM) for several years. Now, the precious artefact has a new home, though still within NM. The museum has unveiled a new section dedicated to Philippine textiles and the art and technology of weaving at the third floor of the Museum of the Filipino People (old Finance Building). The Queen Sofia Hall and Hall 318 were converted into the Textile Galleries, which was formally unveiled in May 18, 2012. In September 21, their permanent exhibit, “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippine Textiles,” began seeing visitors.
The idea for the Textile Galleries sparked when like-minded individuals met and then collaborated. NM credits Loren Legarda as a moving force behind the creation of the galleries. The senator¸ who chairs the Senate Committee on Cultural Communities, has been promoting traditional woven textiles, her passion which became part of her advocacy to preserve indigenous culture. Legarda has been known for wearing gowns fashioned from hand-woven traditional fabrics and has showcased native fabrics and Philippine attires in several exhibits in the Senate.
“But I have long dreamed of seeing a textile museum in my own country,” she revealed. “With more than a hundred indigenous cultural communities in our country, we should showcase our rich culture and the distinctiveness of our own habi.”
In 2010, Legarda met NM director Jeremy Barns and Labrador, which started the ball rolling, overcoming the hurdles that came their way.
NM sourced from its own collections to put into the Textile Galleries. Other government agencies and institutions became partners and supporters in the endeavour including the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA) of the Department of Agriculture, the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) of the Department of Science and Technology, and the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center.
The Aklan Provincial Tourism Council and HIBLA contributed additional looms. Congressman Victor Ortega of the First District of La Union, Ilocos Sur vice governor Deogracias Victor Savellano and councilor Edmund Gavina of Bangar, La Union also contributed items to the museum.
“It’s really convergence,” Legarda said. “There is really cooperation and convergence among government agencies.”
Labrador served as chief curator of the exhibition, which aims to provide a preliminary survey and study of the similarities of the traditional textiles.
“We finally thought we should really think about nation and how textiles bind us a nation,” Labrador related. “So, we look at the common practices, common threads, common fibers, that are really kind of found all over the country.”
“The word is commonality and the ties that bind, the threads of life,” Legarda affirmed. “These are perhaps three phrases or words that formed part of the work we’ve done here, because we are an archipelago, we have many ethno-linguistic groups, we have about 80 provinces with about 41,000 barangays, we have more than a hundred of languages. We’re so diverse. But textiles, and with the various textiles, however, we try to find the commonality, the unity amidst this diversity. That is what we’re pushing for here. We do not want to further divide the nation by displaying the textiles geographically. So, what Ana did was to the find the ikat of the North and the ikat of the South, or the embroideries of the Cordilleras, which have commonality with those of the Muslim groups….”
      “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino” looks into the likenesses, exchanges and borrowing of designs and forms in local weaves, believing that they can be coaxed to reveal visions of a national identity through threads that when woven as textile, may piece together their different stories.
The exhibition tells the processes of weaving, informing visitors first of the different fibers used by the different ethnic groups with weaving traditions. Abaca and cotton are commonly used by many ethnic groups. An attractive chart, reproduced from the 2009 book Bahaghari: Colors of the Philippines, shows the natural dyes that have been used all over the Philippines, from the karimbabul to the malunggay.
The different looms used by different groups, such as the foot loom and the back-strap loom, are displayed in one area, enabling visitors to compare and contrast. Other production materials can also be seen and marveled at. The finished textiles are laid out to reveal their beauty..
The exhibit illustrates the social significance of textiles in different communities, the roles they play in rituals and in life, from birth to death. Aside from the Banton cloth, another National Cultural Treasure is on display—the kinuttiyan of the Ifugao, a ritual death blanket of the kadangyan, the high-ranking members of the Ifugao community. The one here is collected in June 13, 1968 by William Beyer in Amanagad, Banaue, Ifugao.
Additionally, large photographs of several indigenous people wearing their traditional attires, such as the Mandaya, decorate the walls, taken by prominent photographer Wyg Tysmans. At another are historic photographs of several ethnic groups in traditional garb at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition (courtesy of the American Museum of National History archives).       
Also part of the exhibit are gowns, dresses and barong Tagalog by prominent fashion designers such as Jojie Lloren, Cesar Gaupo, Barge Ramos, Frederick Peralta, Milka Quin and Roy Gonzales.
The Textile Galleries are not only repositories of precious artefacts and specimens but they also serve as venues for lectures and live weaving demonstrations by actual weavers, which are occasionally mounted during Fridays and Saturdays.
The Senator Loren Legarda Lecture Series on Philippine Traditional Textiles and Indigenous Knowledge officially started on March 13, 2012, along with the preview of the Textile Galleries.
“In this modern day and age, it is quite a difficult task to make our people embrace our culture since many may have long forgotten about it. But if they refuse to visit our history, we must let history visit them. These Textile Galleries and the lecture series we organized are some of our efforts towards that,” Legarda commented.
Tagabawa Bagobo weavers, piƱa weavers from Aklan, weavers from the Cordilleras as well as from the Ilocos Region have been brought in for visitors to witness and experience actual weaving. Mat and basket weavers from different cultural communities have also been invited.
 Labrador admitted that the galleries are not thoroughly comprehensive. “We chose because it can’t possibly accommodate everything, but we’re hoping someday we can have a standalone museum for textiles,” she said.
“It’s a work in progress,” Legarda added. “I’m not saying it’s perfect but we’re trying.”
Right now, ideas, plans and dreams are being woven.
Legarda mentioned plans of bringing in the textile collection of one of Philippines’ most revered heroes, Jose Rizal. It is presently at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in Germany. Another plan is the collection of sketches of Filipino fashion designers, which are usually discarded after use.
“What we want to do is also to create an archive of Filipino fashion designs,” Labrador revealed.  “We want to be a reference later on for maybe designers or merchandisers, [a place to] look at what we have. It’s really to inspire later on to generate more innovations and designs.”
She also said that they’re starting a program on “economic botany” in collaboration with FIDA and PTRI “because we want to be more relevant to local people.”
“So, we’re experimenting now with fibers to see if we can harness them that can be turned into something else so that local people could actually have a means of livelihood,” Labrador said.
With these, the National Museum is tying together life and death, tradition and innovation, past and future, and the different cultures with imagination and the fibers of our country.

The exhibition features different kinds of looms in the Philippines as well as other implements for weaving and the finished textiles. Large-scale photographs by Wig Tysman features selected indigenous peoples in their traditional wear

Both traditional attires and gowns made by contemporary designers, using hand-woven fabrics, are on display at the Textile Galleries

The Banton cloth, estimated to be from the thirteenth to the early fourteenth century, is the oldest exsiting piece of cloth in the Philippines and is considered to be the earliest specimen of wrap tie-dyed textile in Southeast Asia. It was discovered in a disturbed burial site in Banton Island, Romblon, along with other artefacts. /Photo from the National Museum of the Philippines

 The kinuttiyan, made of cotton and dyed using the binudbudan or wrap-ikat tie-dyed resist technique,  is the ritual death blanket of the kadangyan, the high-ranking members of the Ifugao community. This specimen, declared a National Cultural Treasure, was collected in June 13, 1968 by William Beyer in Amanagad, Banaue, Ifugao. /Photo from the National Museum of the Philippines
Museum of the Filipino People, where the Textile Galleries are, is part of the National Museum complex and is located along Finance Road, Ermita, Manila. Visiting hours are from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., Tuesdays to Sundays. For more information, visit

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