Healing the Warp and Weft of Scars with Women Weaver Networks in Timor-Leste
by Samyuktha PC
The Timorese trace their origins to over 5000 years ago, when different Austronesian tribes settled on an island on the Indian Ocean, bringing new skills and arts learned from Javanese tribes, Arabian traders and the Indian subcontinent. The weaving of tais (handwoven traditional Tenun textiles), originated from this intersection of cultural history, with each Timorese tribe developing different languages or methodologies for dyeing fabrics and weaving cultural and folk motifs across their tapestries.
The Violence of History
The dense sandalwood forests of Timor attracted traders from China, Arabia and all corners of the maritime world. The colonization of Timor began in the 16th Century when Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived on the island. In the 17th Century, the Dutch East India Company began colonizing Timor. In 1859, the Treaty of Lisbon gave the Dutch control over the western half of Timor and the Portuguese control over the eastern half. The colonies were characterized by a paternalistic attitude towards the indigenous people and the exploitation of the island's resources. Their missionaries proselytized tribes across the island. They plundered and destroyed the sandalwood forests and several indigenous cultural resources.
In 1975, when the Carnation Revolution overthrew the Portuguese Empire, the new regime proclaimed the independence of its colonies. On November 28, 1975, FRETILIN and Prime Minister Xavier do Amaral, unilaterally declared the Independence of Timor-Leste. However, this was short lived. The Suharto regime in Indonesia exploited the vacuum of military power in East Timor, and under the pretext of squashing a Communist takeover, instigated a civil war and invaded the island on December 7, 1975, with military weapons supplied by the United States of America.
This invasion led to one of the most tragic mass genocides of the world causing the death of over 200,000 people and the displacement of many more. It is crucial to note that the Great Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea, with a rich amount of oil reserves, were discovered in 1974. As 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jose Ramos-Horta, who played a critical role in Timor-Leste's independence from Indonesian dictatorship and the United Nations interim governance in 2002, points out, "...the United States is not the only culprit. Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Japan—all the major powers—are accomplices in one of the greatest genocides of a small nation in post-World War II." These nations still exploit the most control over Timor-Leste's natural resources - especially, oil and gas. And if the patterns of history repeat in different places of the world, it is a well-known neoliberalist tactic to ensure that indigenous conflict brews to keep the plundering of oil and gas alive.
Several indigenous movements of resistance marked in ceremonial tais against the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company, the Japanese military, the Indonesian state and the current neoliberalist powers have consistently re-engaged the idea and meanings of self-determination in Timor-Leste. The young nation simultaneously tackles its fragile rebirthing, with haunted memories, lack of resources, and internal conflicts. One cannot weave a history of Timor-Leste without understanding recurrent mass violence and its colonial and neoliberalist origins over the last four centuries. One needs to place the post-conflict restoration efforts to revive and protect indigenous Timorese tais weavers within this larger context of exploitation.
Moreover, the indigenous woman weaver is endangered by gender-based violence that denies her the agency to forge self-determination at an individual level: as a decision-maker, a provider, an entrepreneur, a history keeper and an artist. Therefore, creating economic autonomy and forming support networks for women through weaving becomes the foundation upon which the rest can be built.
The Language of Tais
The traditional textile, Tais, is predominantly woven by women, who orally pass on their skills and legends to the next generation in their communities. Traditionally, it is considered a central skill to womanhood and forming families, as through motifs it becomes a spiritual account of their culture. Different types of tais are used in different occasions like village ceremonies, weddings, greeting guests and funerals. The types of tais also vary across ethnic groups. Made with ikat-dyeing of cotton and woven through handlooms, young girls often learn this weaving communally from their mothers and grandmothers, forming informal circles of dialogue for women in their community. In 2002, this artistic community practice was on the brink of extinction.
Local groups sought help from international players to revive the lost art form as the prime cultural identity of nation-building. The motifs on the tais often represent the spiritual philosophies and folklore of Timor-Leste. The colours used are highly symbolic - especially the colours of the Timorese national flag. The black represents more than five centuries of colonial repression, the yellow the struggle for independence, and the red the suffering of the East Timorese people. The white star symbolizes hope for the future. In weaving the tais, the women weavers bring their past into their present by continuing their resistance against colonialism and imperialism. As anthropologist Paulo Castro Seixas describes, “[tais is] the skin of the ancestors that is continuously woven to cover the living to link them in alliance and to act in their turn.”
Women weaver networks lobbied for stronger legal and policy framework to assist and protect them to keep this tradition alive. In 2021, tais weaving was added to the UNESCO List of Tangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Cultural Safeguarding as a matrilineal oral traditional knowledge practice and craftsmanship. This has increased international aid and support.
Beyond Economic Autonomy
The Timor Aid, UN Women, Fundasaun Alola, Secretary of State for Art and Culture of Timor-Leste, the National Committee to ICH, Together for Equality of the United Nations and Korea International Cooperation Agency are the different state and international institutions that have played a key role in assisting the revival of tais weaving.
The focus has been on positioning tais weaving as an indigenous matrilineal art form that can be used as a basis to create economic subsistence for women. With rapid urbanisation, tais have become an expensive hand woven collectible instead of daily clothing. Younger Timorese women do not take to weaving as it is not a viable economic opportunity.
A variety of programmes have been launched to tackle this - TV talk shows with women weavers to build awareness, forming weavers networks, developing a tais certification system, research and documentation of local knowledge, training and conducting weaving competitions, creating a market of tais weaving trainers, and installing a permanent exhibition of tais at the Dili airport with acknowledgement of women weavers across Timor-Leste to promote exposure to international tourists.
Weavers' networks and co-ops have been formed across six municipalities: Baucau, Bobonaro, Covalima, Lautém, Oé-cusse and Viqueque. These networks provide access points for individuals and small groups of weavers to network and collectively connect with government offices and address their concerns.
While it is crucial to safeguard traditions, it is important to acknowledge the work of Timorese contemporary artists like Maria Madeira. She was evacuated from her home in the Ermera region of Timor-Leste by the Portuguese Air Force during the Indonesian invasion in 1976. She lived in a refugee camp run by the Red Cross in Portugal for over eight years before migrating with her family to Australia in 1983. She works in the intersection of traditional and contemporary arts and advocates for developing Timorese women’s agency for creative expression alongside the projects for developing their economic autonomy. In fact, she argues that creative expression and innovation are paramount.
To illustrate the power of creative expression using tais as a landscape, the work of a traditional weaver and emeritus artist Veronica Pereira Maria stands out. She had to flee her country after the Indonesian occupation in 1975 and taught exiles at a Portugal refugee camp, including Maria Madeira, the art of tais weaving. After the Santa Cruz Massacre in 1991, where the Indonesian military murdered nearly 250 peaceful East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators in Dili, she actively participated in performances, demonstrations and pickets. Over five years (1995-99), she wove five ikat tais commemorating the name of each of those killed in the massacre: with each letter in white on black background, each name separated by a crucifix, and each line divided by blood red stripes. Her Tais Don is a symbol of how the power of voice can emerge through a contemporary lens of a traditional practice - and truly become the text of Timor-Leste.
Through the decolonisation of aid programmes and shifting the agency of what practices artistically mean to the people working with it and living its history, present and future, the tais can become an intersectional landscape of expression for Timorese women.
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Vinita Ramani & Kathy Zu, Australia & East Timor - A Tale of Oil and Exploitation, published on: 17 September 2019, https://kontinentalist.com/stories/australia-east-timor-a-tale-of-oil-and-exploitation