|Amongst the 700,000 population of West Timor are some clever and talented artisans still working in the traditional methods with little more than a machete and a small knife. In a land where there is little opportunity to earn additional income the crafts of Timor serve a dual purpose: of helping to preserve cultural integrity and providing artists with creative outlet; and supplementing income.
Documentation of Timorese textiles
Of the notable texts produced over the last century on textiles, Ruth Yeager and Mark Jacobson’s treatise on West Timorese textiles is the most recent and comprehensive. Originally published in black and white in 1995, the current edition (2002) is a colour plate version, entitled “Studies in Material Cultures of South-east Asia No. 2: Textiles of Western Timor, Regional Variations in Historical Perspective”. ISBN 974-4800-01-1. It gives a fabulously in-depth look at the diverse range of motifs and construction in Timorese textiles, and how they fit into Timorese society.
Of East Timorese textiles there has been very little recorded, though I have seen some photographs in Portuguese books of the 1920s and 30s depicting colonial life in the East Indies.
Since I began trading and collecting Timorese textiles I have photographed and recorded details of every one of the 1200 cloths that have passed through my hands and many of ‘the ones that got away’. The result is a documentation of the huge range, variety and diversity within the cloths.
Weaving of textiles in Timor
The cloths are still woven on a simple back strap loom held into place by Y-shaped sticks. The weaver herself provides the tension, by placing her feet on a backboard whilst seated.
You may be fortunate to see women weaving seated on the packed dirt floor of the “afternoon rest” place called a lopo during the quiet times of the day – between the cooking, the kids, the corn and the water carting. A few men also weave, but that’s another story.
With the inroads of electricity and asphalt roads, availability of commercial threads and dyes has increased and is putting pressure on the traditions of handspinning cotton and natural dyeing of one’s own threads. I encourage the handspun cotton, natural dye process by paying more in the hope that this will encourage the women to continue it, and the girls to learn.
Other examples of weaving
Women also weave mats, baskets, purses and bags from pandanus. Ceremonial betel nut receiving boxes always have a shallow basket inlaid top (in order to be able politely to keep some betel aside for a later chew), and often with a secret compartment for special papers or the occasional photograph.
Timorese pottery also has its own distinctive style. There are potters in most provinces, predominately women. Pots are made mostly for carrying water from the well or river which can be up to 2 km away. Some are made as medicine and herb cookers and storage. Most pottery is low fired in a stack with timber around it. Although the same People who assisted with the Lombok pottery project also helped create one in Timor. Sadly they placed the project too far from transport to be viable, encouraged the making of large vase urns and dramatically changed the style of pots.
Timorese carving tradition
Lack of modern equipment such as cameras is one of the reasons the ancestral figure work is still present. As a means of honouring the departed a statue would be carved and usually kept in the false roof of the lopo. It is brought out to re-tell stories and remember. Similarly guardian spirits, ancestor figures or totemic spirits are captured in wood for posterity.
The tradition of carving has been continued and is practiced by males exclusively. There are approximately 60 carvers spread throughout TTS and TTU. Virtually no one carves or weaves in Kupang or Belu. The carvers work with such mediums as wood (teak, red cedarwood, eucalyptus and palmwood), bamboo, coconut shell, gourds, bone and fossilised coral.
Examples of carved crafts of Timor
Examples of the crafts are betel nut containers, walking sticks, catapults, spinning tops, oware game, lever cotton gins, drop spindles and parts for the weaving loom. These are all fashioned from wood. Also masks, statues (in the form of Ancestor or Guardian figures, seats, beds and Timorese doors.
Other examples are jewellery such as bracelets, head combs, pots and medicine jars, necklaces and rings; and large bamboo “lunch boxes”, and musical instruments such as guitars, drums, flutes and recorders.
Masks have a heavily debated history in Timor, with claims that prior to 1930 and the tourist trade the carving of masks did not exist. I am able to neither confirm nor deny these claims. Suffice to say that nowadays masks are carved and used for three primary functions.
Masks with paddle handles are used in ceremonial dance. Their secondary purpose is to provide anonymity to the wearer when in times of food shortages it is deemed acceptable to put on your “mask face” and sneak over to the neighbours and steal food. Likewise you may find your “faceless” neighbour doing the same a short time later.
The other purpose for masks, I am told, is to put them up inside the doorway of the home and those people with bad or evil intent are unable to pass beneath them, whereas those with good intent have no difficulty. Often these masks are “scary or ugly”.
All handcraft is distinctly Timorese
Today, with virtually no outside influences, statues, masks, and indeed all Timorese handcraft, have evolved to be quite distinctly Timorese. Some similarities may be drawn with Papua New Guinean statues and even Nepalese masks, yet you can be assured that the style has been created by the carvers themselves.
I am careful not to influence the craft. I operate with a “tread carefully and watch what you leave behind” policy, as I have seen the results of the few handcraft projects that have been instigated in Timor and mostly these do not benefit the culture or crafts people.
I trust that you will enjoy with me the pleasure of these Timorese Treasures.