Last month, I was able to visit the city of Ubud, Bali, in search for stories to cover. What I found was an interesting dichotomy between art preservation and means of living. I wished I had more time to work on the story, instead I had to return before long. I visited one of the performance space, Ubud Palace, to see if I could get access to the behind the scene of one of Bali's most famous dances; tari Barong. The show was on almost every day in the Ubud Palace; that night was Sadha Budaya Dance studio's turn, who kindly allowed me access to behind the backstage.
After a long, arduous steps, I have finally published my most recent project that took a bit of time to make - Buskers. Buskers tells the story of the art of street musical performance, and the people behind it (click on the image or here to go to the project). It is an ongoing project, but I had to share the first part because it felt so close to my heart, and perhaps because it's a personal message to a friend.
It is not everyday that we meet people who inspires us, and I blame fate to have allowed me to have met such an inspiring figure, B - the man behind the first part of the busker project. I truly hoped that my work - to a certain point - captured the essence of the man, for my words could never have. I have never met a man more open to strangers, both through music and rconversations, as B. Warm as a kindling fire to anyone who approaches him, I had wondered how B's past had affected him. I, of course, am in no place to understand the links between his story and his present, and can only gaze in wonders.
In the end, this post is a message to B - it has been a great pleasure in meeting you. It has been a great learning process, and I did learn a lot from you. I truly hope that whatever you are doing will be fruitful, and that you never stop being a source of warmth in the cold of winter, nor the comfort of rain in the draught of summer.
I have never been a big opponent of Iphone (or ANY SMARTPHONE) photography - I love using it when I don't have my camera with me, and I had always thought that it takes good picture; for instagram at least. Whenever I could, however, I would prefer my DSLR - faster focusing, better dynamic range, and... now that you mention it, I don't know what else. Indeed, one day, a mob of workers in protests appeared in front of my eye when I didn't have my camera with me. I took out my Iphone, and started shooting.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) the Iphone (or again, ANY SMARTPHONES) allowed me to get really close. The tiny, non threatening size allowed people to be more comfortable with me putting a piece of thin box before their faces. I might look funny running around pointing my cellphone at people's faces, but at least I got great photos from such tiny contender (it's smaller then a Leica!)
So, Iphone photojournalism? Why not indeed.
I crept my way on the wooden floors towards the room, stopping silently by the door. Beyond the wooden frames, lit by the morning sunlight filtering through the window were the sounds of chanting. Earlier in the day, a woman came to give offering to Buddha through the monks. Other than the sounds of the chants, the room was completely silent as the sunlight shifted and gave way to rain clouds - soon water started to trickle down the temple roofs.
"Within the walls of the Prayer" is an ongoing work, stemming from the interest in the confined space upon which faith and culture blooms. In the big cities like london, where culture and religion are largely a private matter, it found itself confined in the physical walls of stones and steel. It is in those space, however, another wall was erected, a wall of prayers. Growing within the walls of the prayers were faith and culture, bloomed, and flowered into a microcosm of its own - a completely different universe from those outside of the walls. This work attempts to take a peek into those microcosms, and make sense of its place in the largely cold city of London.
I managed to visit three different places of worship; a Hare Krishna (ISKCON) temple, Buddhapadipa Temple, and the East London Mosque - all of which contained not only the most pleasant people I had met in London, but also a solemn air unlike those outside. Teachings were told, some in english, others in their own native language, or both, and prayers were said to their own faith and for some reason, the warmth provided by each institution had always contrasted the cold rainy weather of London streets.
I long to continue working with the people in each institutions, and perhaps along with others to continue this work. Having always been interested in faith and culture, I long to understand more of each faith.
Life takes you to places, that will always be true; by car, by train, by plane or on foot, we will be somewhere, sometime. Life took me to Tana Toraja, and showed me that sometimes being somewhere you don't care about going means more than being somewhere you actually do. I visited the land of the kings years ago, on a school field trip and it did not amount to much memories in my head - I wasn't eager to come back. But I did - and I am glad I did. I came back with a new set of eyes, and see the King's earth differently; I saw it from the people, instead of from the locations. I loved doing portraits, and I had found wonderful people in Tana Toraja, which drove my fingers and my heart to where it's supposed to lead. It was a wonderful experience.
Tana Toraja is a land of craftsmen; of wood, of clothes, of dances and music, and they are eager to show it. Walking past some rice fields, we encountered a lone hut, standing in the middle of the daylight. Shielded from the heat, was a man deeply engrossed in his woodcraft. Surrounded only by hundreds of his creations - from small statues to those as tall as a grown man - he did not notice our appearance as he continued carving the wood he held with his foot. Moments after, as he noticed us a little way from him, he looked up and smiled, "feel free to look around," he said. I asked if I could take a couple of pictures, to which he again smiled and agreed.
We did visit the renowned places in Tana Toraja, where they showcase the people's culture. One that piqued my interest was Londa, where the remains of the departed was placed in caves. The caves itself, was thought of by the people as houses for the departed, my guide explained to me, and are therefore called the house where smokes don't rise; named due to the absence of cooking in said 'houses'. We walked into the winding roads of the caves lit with only a small gas lamp in the hand of the guide, as he led us deeper into the cave, giving as much explanations as he could along the way.
What did Tana Toraja gave me? a firmer outlook on my photography, perhaps; that and the willingness to be drifted by the currents of fate, as willing as possible. Wonder lies in our backyard, or in our neighbor's or in our neighbor's neighbor's, we just have to drift there.
My journey to the Land of the Kings took me to an off beaten path by the side of a nameless road - small, unkempt, and seemingly leading to nowhere. The end of the road, however, did exist, and it ended with a grave - that of a dear family member of mine, Bokko. Bokko had been a housekeeper in our family for 52 years, taking care of my mother and her brothers since their births. She ended up being as much of a mother as her own to my mother, and a dear family to ours. She passed away a couple of years ago, a year after I promised to visit her in her hometown through a phone call - a promise that was never fulfilled. What happened, on the other hand was us visiting her grave, saying last words to the departed years after she passed away. Bokko's family, Arma showed the way to her family's grave, then to the last house where Bokko had stayed, and there I saw one thing that could forever put Toraja in the maps of my mind.
Over the last 52 years of Bokko working in our family, she apparently had been saving money, and sending much of it home to help building her family's house; a traditional wooden raised house, which showed the amount of work that had gone into the house. I went up the wooden stair to enter the main part of the house - a living room lit only by windows, surrounded with unpainted - but new - wooden walls. As I sat down cross-legged on the floor along with Arma and Bokko's brother, I noticed in the corner of the room, a TV set with what seemed to be a stereo and a DVD player, looking out of place in the plainness of the room, and my mind began to wonder if Bokko had also purchased the TV set with her money. Looking around the living, room, in fact, I could see the wonders of the person that was Bokko; an old mechanical sewing machine that she had been using, a big Chinese tapestry given to her by her sailor brother that he had presumably gotten from overseas, a carved piece of the last supper, and what seemed to be either a Chinese or Korean ornament hanging from the ceiling. It was a comfortable small home, that she had built, and rebuilt for her family, over 52 years, with a piece of her own sewn into each part of the house. "This is so like her," my mother said to me as I looked around, "she had always been very clean and neat." For the next half an hour we sat and chatted with Bokko's family, surrounded by pieces of her world that she had brought home from her travels and work, and it gave me a certain peace of mind.
Before we head out of the house, Arma showed us the room where Bokko had been sleeping in her last days. A small wooden room reflecting the rest of the house, it had a small mattress laid out, and a couple of random objects - Bokko's brother had been using it as a storage. As I looked around, I noticed a wooden cupboard, which turned out to be Bokko's, and still held her belongings. I opened the cupboard to find clothes, accessories, and other items that I did not give much attention into, and we stood there, where time seemingly stopped. Here was the Cupboard where Bokko last grabbed her clothes from, a place she kept all of her belongings in, inside the house she had rebuilt for 52 years. This was all we needed to see, and exactly that was given to our family, the treasure of understanding, of knowing, of nostalgia and love - that of Bokko.
Our family will always miss you, Bokko, thank you for your companionship all throughout the 52 years. My family; my grandma, my parents, my uncles and aunts, my sister, along with myself, will always have you in our heart, wherever I go, along with your house, along with your cupboard, and your family.
thank you. 2013/10/18
It was the same scene I had seen over and over again all throughout Indonesia; in the lands of FLores, in the highlands of Malino, and now, In the land of the Kings - Tana Toraja. Golden lights filtered through the cloudy afternoon, falling carelessly upon the greens of the rice fields - and I was, fortunately, there with my camera. Like much of the famous cultures of the world, however, Toraja is enveloped in a cocoon of tourism, with signs for touristic objects can be seen all throughout the city of Makale and Rantepao. Looking for a glimpse of truth into the culture, therefore, could be a little difficult - or is it?
Perhaps the truth is that being so closely in touch with tourism and the rest of the world, is a fragment of a culture's last means of survival; this is definitely true for Toraja's dying art of traditional cotton threading. Located by the river of Saddang, lies an area - upon which the river takes its name from - where the last remaining cotton threaders work; Grandma Ippang was one of the two last ones, according to herself.
Grandma Ippang introduced herself to me as she performed said dying art of cotton threading. Surrounded by cotton tapestries - all dyed with natural products, such as redwood and leaves - she spun hundreds of years old wooden wheel, which, combined with the pull of her left hand, somehow turned a lump of cotton into a thread. "This thread will then be used for weaving to produce these tapestries," she pointed at the tapestries behind her, "this one is approximately two million rupiahs (approximately two hundred Dollars)," she continued. Throughout our conversation, Grandma Ippang never once ceased her threading, the art which is as much chore as theatrical diplay nowadays. "The art is dying," she said, "the young prefers to practice weaving instead of cotton threading - it's much easier."
At the age of 84, the only other person she knew could do the traditional cotton threading method, was her daughter, making her bloodline the last Cotton threaders in Toraja. The rise of mechanized cotton weaving in factories drove traditional cotton weaving to the brink of extinction; this is only right, due to the low cost of production. The only people that could afford - and appreciate - traditional cotton threaded weavings, therefore, were foreigners. "They (the foreigners) love these kinds of stuff - natural and handmade," Grandma Ippang told me; she went on to explain the natural dyes used in each threads. Perhaps, Grandma Ippang's daughter will pass on the skill of cotton threading to her daughter, to ensure the survival of her people's art. Even if passed down, however, at this point it seemed as if it's merely prolonging the inevitable.