Interconnecting, constructing, collaborating, interlacing, fusing…
The word "weaving" conjures up myriad images, symbols, and ideas. When we transcend our more common, explicit understanding of it as a way to describe how objects are constructed, we start to see how it may also have deeper meaning: the way in which culture and identity are constructed, how material culture is interconnected to a place's biodiversity, the fusion of influences and how that shapes history, and collaboration as a way to work, create, and invent.
For the Philippines, "weaving" is a metaphor for the complexity and intricateness of the archipelago's spirit and creativity. Composed of more than 7,000 islands, over 100 ethno-linguistic tribes, and a history that has been characterized by the confluence of cultures and influences, the extent of the Philippines' material culture remains enigmatic when compared to those of other cultures.
Yet despite this mystery in its material culture, there is one prominent and unifying force that emerges through the archipelago's physical and ethno-tribal diversity: Nature. Woven into the soul of its people, places and creations, nature is salient, poignant and powerful. In the design and craft communities, the consciousness for sustainability is prevalent and, in many ways, much more advanced in comparison to their Western counterparts. The prolific use of natural materials such as abaca, banana leaves, and bamboo that are recycled and upcycled to create objects that often have a strong interconnection to natural shapes and textures is strikingly apparent. Weaving–in this sense–describes the synergy of nature, sustainability, and artisanship that one often witnesses in Filipino creations.
The concept of "weaving" is also a springboard for broader reflection on what is transpiring in this highly complex space called the Philippines. Does the natural environment as a visual reference influence what its artisans create? When and how did the propensity for the use of natural materials and sustainability become engrained in their cultural production? And could they leverage this consciousness as a point of differentiation and a way to "brand" their material culture?
The presentation of the following artisan workshops provides a window through which we can start to contextualize "weaving" in its more implicit forms. It also gives us a glimpse of what can occur when the abundance of natural materials meets the hands of skilled artisans.
Weaving a Community
The sensuous sugar cane fields of atmospheric Negros Island are impregnated with the legacy of the golden years, which once marked this place as a thriving monocrop economy. Today, these very plantations have given way to the Negrense craft industry, a survival response to the 1980s sugar crisis. Woven into the fabric of Negros' story is the interconnection of families, communities, and livelihood—the very reason for the genesis of workshops such as Hacienda Crafts.
Set in the midst of lush sugar plantations in the idyllic rural village of Manapla, Joey and Ina Gaston's community-focused atelier is connected to their home and next door to their magnificent ancestral plantation house. This strong link–both the physical and humane–between family life, artisans, and the community dates back multi-generations and originates from the island's economic history. On Negros, sugar plantation workers were not brought in from elsewhere. They were part of the families who had lived on the farms for generations. Hence, the relationship has always been familial and family-centric. Even today, the weavers of Hacienda come in and pick up their materials to go work at home to be with their families.
Hacienda Crafts, a community-based manufacturer that sources directly from communities or cooperatives, has its grounding in a compelling chapter of the island's history. When the sugar cane industry took a severe dive resulting in the loss of livelihood for the Negrenses, the island strategically diversified its once monocrop economy in response to the crisis. Population increases yet land does not. This equates to an ever-increasing shortage of livelihood. The solution was to work toward a more scalable economic model that fostered the community's self-reliance. "A group of people joined forces to go to Manila to sell anything they could make. This is how the housewives started to get involved in making things," recalls Ina. This led to the founding of organizations, such as the Association of Negros Producers, and handicraft companies, such as Hacienda Craft, as a means to support communities and sustain self-sufficiency.
Deeply rooted in enviro-social concerns, Hacienda Craft's furniture, home accessories, and home décor use natural raw materials that grow in abundance in the island's forests. The design elements are inspired from pre-colonial indigenous weaving traditions, such as those of the T'bolis and the Maranao tribes.
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Past the tree-lined pathway, in the midst of the luxuriant village of Carasuchi in Cavite province, is an atelier. This is where youth and locals from this rural area craft creations of remarkable beauty and invention, in harmony and mindfulness. It is also a place where two contrasting cultures, Japanese and Filipino, can be interwoven in art of papermaking.
Pro-people and pro-environment-minded MASAECO (MASA Ecological Development Inc.) has taken traditional Japanese papermaking and has reformatted it into a hybrid art form by weaving Japanese heritage into the Philippine's native materials. Washi, or traditional Japanese paper, with is thin and fine characteristics is usually made in places with cold weather where materials can be kept fresh.
But constraint is the mother of inventions. Although the thin and fine qualities of washi had to be compromised due to limitations imposed by the humid and warm weather in the Philippines, it has inspired other innovations. For example, MASAECO's experimentation with recycled indigenous materials sourced from agricultural wastes—such as pineapple and banana fiber, cogon grass, and rice straw—has yielded sublime handmade creations that still evoke the beauty of Japanese sensibility while celebrating the rawness of the materials of the local land.
MASAECO has also invented its own techniques inspired from indigenous materials. To create three-dimensional paper for example, it uses techniques involving strings and pulp. Drawing from his background in fine arts, Philippine-based Japanese designer and artist Wataru Sakuma, who spearheads MASAECO, treats the pulp as if were paint or a pencil and creates bold freehand or geometric forms.
Weaving a Resilient Foundation
Soft sounds of local radio stations web in and out. The fans produce a background hum. Strands and rolls of natural seagrass, rattan skins and abaca, in the hands of the artisans, produce choreographed movements in air. Highly-skilled weavers—each with his or her own recycled, reassembled, reconstructed, or re-appropriated chair—are immersed in a state of deep meditation, fully connected to what they are doing. Natural materials and hands move in perfect synergy to translate abstract ideas and inspirations into tangible forms: abaca woven with rattan, rattan laced with flat oval core, seagrass woven into a wireframe, chevron weaves born from rattan skin. And a culture of co-creation transpires between the artisans, the R&D team, and collaborating designers.
At Calfurn, in the town of Angeles in Pampanga province, a large room dedicated purely to weaving anchors its production facility. Although modern tools exist to facilitate turnkey output for their wicker products and furniture making, handweaving persists as their main activity and the foundation for their creations.
Pampanga province, known for crafts and skilled artisans, is considered the quality capital of the north for furniture making. And historically, weaving has been its core activity because indigenous materials such as rattan, wood, and seagrass were readily available. Consequently, this encouraged local industries such as Calfurn to develop around the abundance of natural materials.
Started in 1976, the workshop initially manufactured for the US airbase servicemen based in Angeles. According to Eredito Feliciano, Calfurn's Chairman, back then they were making objects that were quite different from what they are making now. "Customers at that time brought in magazines as their inspiration. Hence, we started out making rattan furniture."
Calfurn's existence for over 40 years attests to its resilience not only in the face of the changing market, but even against natural calamities such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo 18 kilometers away, which completely destroyed part of its facility. Despite this setback, it shipped out its first container in a week. Today, Calfurn employs more than 500 local people and subcontractors and has a legacy of extensive archives that spans more than 40 years and documents the experimentation, testing and the re-adaption of designs and objects. It focuses on exploring the use of diverse indigenous and sustainable materials.
A special thank you
to CITEM and its Media and Communications Team for their kind support in making this story possible.
The title of this story had been inspired by—and is an extension of—the exhibition "New Generation Weaves" curated by Nelson Sepulveda for CITEM's bi-annual event, Manila FAME. The exhibition provided a glimpse into the beauty of natural raw materials and the Philippines' craftsmanship. It marked the culmination of Sepulveda's design collaborations with more than 20 artisan workshops in the Philippines, amongst which were the three workshops featured in this story.
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Mona Kim is the Founder and Editor of Moowon. As the Creative Director of award-winning multidisciplinary design studio, Mona Kim Projects, she has been conceiving public space experiences and large-scale experiential projects for global brands and cultural institutions. Her museum and exhibition design for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, World Expo, Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã), and UNESCO-sponsored projects, gave her the opportunity to document and be exposed to some of the most distinctive examples of social realities and cultural expressions. On these projects, she had co-curated world issues such as endangered languages, cultural diversity and sustainability. The Moowon project is an extension of this background. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD(Women's Wear Daily), The Creative Review, and in publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.