Souksakone Khakampanh: Master Dyer & Weaver

Souksakone Khakampanh: Master Dyer & Weaver

If Above the Fray were to select a single artist most emblematic of the modern talent and skill of the hilltribe weavers, or if we had to choose a single textile expert to represent, Souksakone Khakampanh would be our choice.  Hands down.DSC06135 #10

Souk (rhymes with “book”) lives in Xam Tai, Laos, a village on the Xam River surrounded by the jungle hills of SE Houaphon Province.  The village of several hundred people is 5 hours by vehicle from the provincial capital of Xam Neua, a drive that winds across the steep jungle ridges of the remote Nam Xam National Protected Area.  Xam Tai, however, is anything but desolate and backward.  The internationally-acclaimed silk weavers, designers, and dyers of this district – Xam Tai and its surrounding hill villages – are legendary for their skills at raising, dyeing and weaving silk into intricate, complex forms.  The locals, primarily of the Tai Daeng ethnic group, are industrious (every home seems to have several floor looms), healthy (a new hospital clinic just opened), wireless (everyone has a cheap cell phone), educated (district secondary schools are located here), and, most obviously, proud of their community’s ancient and renown talent and reputation.

 

Souk modeling one of her intricate healing cloths.

Souk modeling one of her intricate healing cloths.

When we visited Xam Tai in 2007, Souk was introduced to us by Mai, our translator from Xam Neua who just happened to have grown up as Souk’s best friend (needless to say, that worked out well for us!); we brought home several of her textiles for our own personal use that year.  In 2008 we returned, this time with business plans, and Souk dedicated an afternoon to teach us about how the traditional natural dyes are made. It seems that in addition to being an expert weaver, Souk is a master dyer who can coax subtle tones and rich hues from the traditional natural dyeing materials.  [No one in Xam Tai uses commercial dyes, despite their efficiency, brightness and longevity.]  She showed us lac, a bug excretion found on a certain tree that is exuded to encase and protect the bugs’ eggs, that had been collected for the required reds.  Sappan wood creates a range of pink to violet. The haem vine creates one hue of yellow, mango tree bark another. Cooking techniques and additives can additionally shape colors to have certain tones. Mordants, such as lye from rice ash or slaked lime, are then skillfully added to set colors onto the material. Souk’s created colors are treasured as much locally as by dyers around the world. [More about the dyeing process, as well as a bibliography of resources, can be found at www.hilltribeart.com.]

 

Souk is modest and beautiful; she displays a calm exterior and easy smile that hides a whirlwind of creative talent and “get-it-done” energy.  Her home is base to a hundred projects.  A rainbow of freshly dyed silk skeins, from bright yellow to murky green to rich maroon, drape over a bamboo pole. Vats of deep colors bubble and froth on a series of small focused fires – bundles of silk bob in each differently colored “soup.” Two floor looms, one in pieces, sit beneath a roofed arbor in front of her home; a rich blue is strung on the warp, and the weft threads are beginning a stunning green and red pattern of naga – the mythical river-serpent motif – that will stretch across the textile.  Chickens, children, drying corn and a small tractor engine share the shade. Friends, as well as a couple aunts and cousins, upon hearing that “falang” are in town, drop by eager to show their goods as well; Souk makes time and room for everyone.

Souk next to one of her complex large shaman cloths (or ceremonial wedding blanket.

Souk next to one of her complex large shaman cloths (or ceremonial wedding blanket.

Souk, who does not speak English, shared her personal story through Mai.  She was born and raised in the center of the Xam Tai weaving community; she began her training with her mother, first learning basic weaving at age 7, then dyeing techniques at 10.  Her family, like many households in the area, had looms set up under the thatched-roof bamboo homes; it was assumed that girls would participate in the traditional art both because of its cultural importance – and Xam Tai is particularly renown for its complex Shamans’ ceremonial blankets – and because of the textiles’ trade value.  Soon she had learned all she could from her mother about dyeing, and began experimenting with her own dyes and color combinations.  She has since taught others in her village her new dyeing techniques, and has taught a multitude of dyeing classes in Laos’ capital, Vientiane.  She has even been invited to go to Japan to teach dyeing!

These days Souk focuses on dyeing and design-work, and she directs a cadre of 70 weavers in regional villages who can meet her highest-quality expectations – a single ceremonial wedding blanket takes 4 months to weave.  When designing the motifs and patterns, Souk reverently adheres to her Tai Daeng traditions, but she also has the confidence to create some subtle new design forms.  She explains to us that while the traditions are important, each generation needs to make an impact on the art.  She now finds herself to be one of the  communities’ leaders and works tirelessly to maintain the ancient artistic traditions, and yet all the while developing new forms, dyes and markets.

Souk always gives us 2-3 hours to sort through her several stacks of tidily folded silks  – it is tough to choose from the range of designs and colors.  Once she disappeared for a half hour only to return with and big grin and bowls of steaming frog soup.  At the end of our afternoon, we negotiate a little – but she smiles and budges on pricing only an inch; we all know that she can sell her textiles, sight unseen, through distributors in Laos’ capital at her asking price (indeed, we saw some of her pieces in some up-scale silk shops there). She knows the value of her art.  After all, she knows the people who raised and spun the silk; she knows the time it takes to find and process the raw materials that make each threads’ color; she knows the hours it takes to create each pieces’ unique design; she knows the effort and precision involved in the months of Koh weaving (see the next article). She knows she offers the very finest, and, smiling proudly, she readily accepts that compliment.

My Life as a Photo-Journalist, by Zall, 14

My Life as a Photo-Journalist, by Zall, 14

Hah!  Caught her!

Hah! Caught her!

Crouched under a bush, I laid down on the dirt; the dusty camera lens poked through a gap next to a mud-stained fencepost. Pulling back the zoom a little bit, I attempted to focus on a group of women trying to sell things down below.  I adjusted a few things; no, it’s way to dark, bring up the light settings. Ease down on the button, and… *click*.  Being a photographer overseas isn’t as easy as you may think.  As a matter of fact, there can be some major drawbacks and problems along the way.  A lot more work and effort goes into each shot than one might believe.

I’m loving her grin!

I’m loving her grin!

One major problem with shooting photos of the tribal groups is that a lot of them don’t want their picture taken due to religious or community beliefs.  A very common belief is that a depiction of them takes away part of their soul.  As you can see, this makes the picture process even more complicated, because now you have to hide in a bush, or behind a house.  I would often ask my dad to stand still and then act like I was taking his picture, when in truth the lens was focusing over his shoulder on a person behind.

Another dilemma is that nobody smiles in a photo.  Photos are believed to be very serious things, so you must look very serious, leaving most of our portraits looking gloomy or mad.  In truth, the people look so much better when they smile.  It seems their personalities shine when you can see the wrinkles and teeth.

A sneaky shot of a hard-working mom harvesting manioc root with her hard-sleeping baby.

A sneaky shot of a hard-working mom harvesting manioc root with her hard-sleeping baby.

An additional problem is my parents (yes I’m blaming this on them).  They like to continue walking on and not stop for a couple of minutes for a good shot.  They’re normally almost out of sight on trails, yelling at me to hurry up.  Because of this, I can’t get just the right angle or light settings.

One of the perks of the  job…

One of the perks of the job…

Yet another problem with time is that people don’t stay in one spot or do one thing for very long.  Most of the time I may only have half a second of the right angle, and if I don’t click the button on that moment, I miss the shot.  I don’t like getting pictures of people when they know they’re getting looked at by a camera lens, so the only way to do that is catch when they’re doing their regular everyday things.  So it seems I walk around with my camera out, ready and wasting battery power, a lot more often than I’m actually focused on taking a specific shot.

Problems, problems, problems; It seem like that all I can talk about, so I have to add:  photographing things overseas is one the best things of my life.  I love the constant struggle to get the right point of view, and to get the shot just at the right time.  I truly think that taking photos in the remote hilltribes of Laos is the best possible photography assignment I can think of.

Making A Difference in One Small Place – by Ari, age 17

Making A Difference in One Small Place – by Ari, age 17

Our oldest son, Ari, had the good fortune to volunteer overseas this summer.  While we are most jealous that he got to have international adventures without his parents and brother, it only seems reasonable that young adults get to grow into their own lives.  Here is his report: 

Ari and companions shoveling materials for making brick in the hot sun.

Ari and companions shoveling materials for making brick in the hot sun.

This summer I spent 7 wonderful weeks in Sovie, a small community in rural Ghana, serving with the American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to international social justice issues.  As one of fifteen high school volunteers selected from across the United States and Canada, I gave my summer to build a latrine alongside the people of Sovie.  This jungle community of about 2000 people had, at the beginning of the summer, no usable facility for the safe disposal of human waste.  Our team was charged with providing labor, alongside some local workers, for building a facility that would meet the long term needs of the community.

When we arrived local workers had already dug and cemented the three by five by fourteen-foot holes for the “10-seater” latrine. Although the project had commenced, there was still a lot of work to be done.  We spent the first three days learning how to make bricks like the locals do – by hand – and creating the base that spanned the trench.  Although we celebrated like it was quite an accomplishment at the time, looking back I realize that we had barely started.

Locals in front of the finished latrine.

Locals in front of the finished latrine.

With the base constructed, it was time to create our building blocks: bricks… lots and lots of bricks.  I am very proud to proclaim that we made 186 bricks in one day.  Not only did this number exceed the local expectation of 150, but it was also a vast improvement over the fifty bricks that we created on our first day on the worksite.  Then we had to move all of the bricks – again, local style on one’s head -  an eighth of a mile, to the construction site (which doesn’t sound like much until you have to haul a 50 lb. block 186 times).  Next we had to mix cement and concrete – yep, local style with shovels -  which we used as a mortar to hold the bricks together and, later, as a plaster for the walls.  After weeks of running through the cycle of making, moving, and building, we finally completed the structure of the latrine.  Then came the roofing… and the priming… and the painting.  Needless to say, by the time that we had finished the latrine everybody, local and volunteer, was exhausted, but proud.  In celebration, every worker returned to our house and had “minerals” – the local options being Pepsi, Coca Cola, or Mirinda.  Even today I feel good knowing I had a hand in the enduring health of this friendly community.

Ari with some of his students. .

Ari with some of his students. .

Balancing a load of mortar for the bricks.

Balancing a load of mortar for the bricks.

I  also spent an hour each day teaching English to the fourth grade class.  The kids were awfully squirmy and, although I really enjoyed their smiles and energy, getting good lessons taught was tough.  It sure made me appreciate my regular teachers’ abilities!

The biggest thing I learned is that one person really can make a difference, and a lot of small differences do add up to a significant effect.  Sovie is cleaner and healthier today thanks to the efforts of our whole team of volunteers and locals.  It also confirmed that good people exist everywhere, and that the differences we see between individuals, ethnic groups, and nations really are minor compared to the ways in which we are all alike.

The Intricacy of Koh (Discontinuous Supplementary Weft Pattern Weaving)

The Intricacy of Koh (Discontinuous Supplementary Weft Pattern Weaving)

Souk and other weavers who create the intricate ceremonial blanket, shaman and healing cloths utilize a complex technique of loom weaving called discontinuous supplementary weft (or Koh, in Lao).  Once the warp threads (the length) are strung, Koh requires that the artist, while weaving the weft threads (the width), hand-picks different colored threads and loops these supplemental threads onto selected warp threads to create the desired designs.  These textiles are woven with the backside of the fabric facing up on the loom so the weaver has access to looping the supplemental threads neatly.  However, the weaver cannot see the emerging finished pattern on the bottom side and must, as Patricia Cheesman writes (Lao-Tai Textiles, 2004), ”work in the abstract since nothing is written down… (and) hold the image of the design in her mind.”

The heddle on the loom.

The heddle on the loom.

Close up of a vertical pattern heddle.

Close up of a vertical pattern heddle.

To assist the weaver with complex designs, long shafts made of wood can be placed within the vertical heddles that create each row’s pattern.  To set this up, the heddles (vertical threads that intersect with the warp threads) are first positioned in the warp by looping strings around each warp thread and passing about a half meter above and below the textile.  Pattern sticks are then placed into the verticalheddles, instead of the warp, with each stick (and there may be hundreds of them) lifting the selected warp threads according to the desired pattern.  The weaver brings the heddles separated by each pattern stick in turn towards herself, lifts the selected warp threads, and places a wooden sword into the shed (the selected warp threads) to hold it open while she hand-picks that one row of what may be dozens of supplemental threads.  She then removes the sword and weaves a tabby shed (a row of plain weave) to hold the new threads in place.  The pattern stick is then placed into the vertical heddles below the textile in the same order which stores the pattern; this allows the weaver, once a design is complete, to start the process in reverse creating the mirror image of the original pattern (thus, each complex design image is woven with its reflection).  Sometimes the designs are so complex, using over 1000 pattern sticks, that string is used instead of sticks to take up less space on the loom – this is the manner in which most of the textiles we purchase in this region are made.

Mirror image patterning in a shaman cloth.

Mirror image patterning in a shaman cloth.

Koh is an amazing process to watch.  The weaver’s fingers dance over the threads, moving shuttles, looping threads, and lifting warp; a slip of the finger or the mind, or a single dropped thread can create glaring errors.  Precision, consistency and accuracy are required with every move, from designing the pattern to raising, spinning and dyeing the silk, to completing months of weaving.

Young weaver picking the supplemental weft color patterns from the back side of the cloth.

Young weaver picking the supplemental weft color patterns from the back side of the cloth.

For centuries, these Koh textiles have been used for ceremonial purposes by shaman as well as ordinary villagers. These traditional textiles have been created to symbolize, access and affect the world of spirits and ancestors, and are used for healing ceremonies, planting and harvest rituals, protective rituals for travelers and newborns, and at weddings and funerals.  These devoted dyers and weavers, their art and traditions, have been central to their cultural memory.

Full view of the vertical heddle with pattern strings stored both above and below the warp.

Full view of the vertical heddle with pattern strings stored both above and below the warp.