Almost four months into quarantine, we’ve probably seen it all on TV or social media—people losing their jobs, students finding ways to attend online classes despite the lack of equipment, officials violating quarantine protocols and more. But you would barely see reports on how indigenous communities are coping with the ongoing health crisis.
Unlike many of us who are at least privileged enough to find alternative ways to earn income amid the pandemic, most ethnic minorities across the country only depend on their handicrafts like weaves. But with general community quarantine still in effect in Metro Manila, trade fairs—a significant platform for these artisans—are canceled and movements to and from the city are restricted.
Although a lot of organizations and businesses are willing to provide assistance to these communities by selling their artisanal products, how can we be so sure that they treat our local weavers right and compensate them properly? How certain are we that these businesses don’t commodify and appropriate their culture?
The direct-to-community approach
Cultural appropriation, as we generally know, is carelessly adopting a minority’s culture. But there’s also an economic side to it that most of us aren’t aware of. If a business mass produces artisanal products without the community’s permission, not only does it rob the community of its sacred history and craftsmanship but also a potential source of income.
To prevent this from happening, cult.ph, a passion project founded by Ateneo de Manila University professor J. Sedfrey Santiago, uses a direct-to-community approach to help indigenous groups—specifically the Itneg (alternatively known as Tinguian) community in Peñarrubia, Abra—sell their products.
Essentially, cult.ph only promotes Itneg products on their IG account and assists prospective buyers in contacting the weavers. It doesn’t get any commission from them. “No money passes through me. Payment should be made directly to the weavers through online banking and weavers directly ship ordered items to the buyer,” says Santiago.
The social enterprise was initially established in 2017 to market artistic products made by Bilibid prison inmates but making arrangements with them wasn’t an easy task. “The IG account was dormant for around two years until the pandemic supervened. The Itneg weavers, specifically Strong Mina and his family, asked me to help them sell their face masks as their market is in Metro Manila and they are based in Namarabar, Peñarrubia, Abra,” the professor recalls.
A passion project more than anything
Handloom weaving is an indigenous tradition that is continuously being threatened by the decline of support for local weaves due to poorly implemented protection policies. In some weaving communities, parents weave so they can support their children’s education. What will happen if this tradition completely dies?
That’s why cult.ph aims to promote community arts and crafts above everything else. “I’m just happy to do whatever little I can to support the weaving done by the Agaid-Mina family (and the weavers of Namarabar, Peñarrubia). I’m personally content if they are able to continue earning a living from their art,” says Santiago.
“This passion project—which it remains to be—will not become a for-profit business but may perhaps see an organic evolution that may lead to growth especially in terms of the number of partner communities,” he adds.
Educating the market
Thankfully, there’s a growing interest in cultural goods due to local brands using native textiles in their fashion designs. But how many of us are aware of how they’re made? A brand with a good cause will educate its buyers on how these fabrics are produced, the many months it takes to weave a meter of textile and the stories behind each product. Knowing this may help change the market’s attitude and be more mindful of buying and wearing weaves.
Stories behind the masks
The weavers of Peñarrubia aren’t just designers, they are storytellers, too. For every mask made, they incorporate embroidered symbols that allow a glimpse of their history. And it really hits different when you know the meaning behind the mask you wear on the daily.
Flowers signify beauty and grace in the community.
This design is specifically dedicated to the dancing women of the Itneg tribe.
For the Itneg people, lizards mean good luck and prosperity.
Spiders symbolize the artisans’ great ability to weave.
In terms of protection, Itneg handwoven masks are at par with other fabric masks. So if you’re interested in buying one, you can contact Santiago via @cult.ph or Strong Mina via @namarabar.farmers.ethnic.
More than the earnings though, the Itneg people hope their artisanal crafts are enough to keep their culture alive and be respected by the general public. According to Santiago, relational imbalances in partnerships between indigenous groups and business firms are unavoidable but “respect for one another can be a guiding principle that will help rectify the imbalance for a more equitable and humane partnership.”
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Writer: KLEO CATIENZA
ART LEVEN SANGALANG