Scattered in stilt houses surrounding scenic Lake Sebu live the textile tribal people known as the Tboli. One of the Philippines 80+ indiginous ethnic linguistic groups, the Tboli people live a simple life balancing modernization with their traditional culture of farming, fishing and craftsmanship.
Labeled as the the Dream Weavers the Tboli are famous for diligently transforming the natural Abaca plant into a magnificent mystic material known as the T’nalak. These distinctive sacred symmetrical designs are inspired directly from the visions in their dreams and taught in T’boli schools of living tradition. More fascinating than the process of the T’nalak, is that the Tboli women’s distinctively adorned cultural dress was only implemented a mere 60 years ago, when Christian missionaries brought new materials and skills into the region.
Within moments of researching Filippino tribes I was awe struck by the resplendent regalia of the Tboli people. Their elaborate hair combs, intricate jewelry, colourful weaving and mysterious motifs. I wanted to learn everything about them and felt filled with excitement of the prospect of connecting with new ethnicities after Vietnam. This was to be short lived reaction when moments after my discovery a well respected travel professional (and good friend) advised me that it would be near suicide to ever see the Tboli in person. Since the 1950s parts of Mindanao Island have seen a brutal civil war between Christian and Muslim freedom fighters, with off sprung terrorist groups regularly kidnapping western tourists for ransom.
Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to be told that you can’t go somewhere and research these amazing people because of terrorism? It sucks. So I let it go, thinking I would have to be bonkers to ignore his and a million other websites advice.
Fast track 1 month later and I’m sat with the general secretary of the Department of Tourism in Manila, discussing where and whom to visit on my tour of the Philippines. “You have to see the Tboli!” he said, “I really really really want to see the Tboli, their textiles look phenomenal”, “You have to go and see them”, “But is it safe? (mum stop reading), I read that there was a rebel shoot out on Lake Sebu only a few months ago??”, “Yes it’s safe, that was a one off incident. I will guarantee your safety, you will be with our people the whole time. You must go and see the Tboli”.
Meeting the Tboli
A short 1 hour flight from Zamboanga city after meeting the Yakan tribe and bonkers Donna was greeted by the regional director of tourism Nelly Dillera at General Santos airport. We took a 4×4 through the pineapple fields and up the the mountainous terrain to the pretty and picturesque Lake Sebu. As I stepped onto the stone driveway a tribal fusion of brass, leather and wooden instruments spilled out of the long house to greet my arrival.
Meeting the Tboli’s for the first time was a overwhelming sensory experience. Smiling men and women were dressed in full regalia, the walls were dripping with decorations, fabrics and jewelry, and the music engulfed me like the warmest welcome i’ve ever received. Before investigating the tribal textile techniques and traditional dress I was treated to a charming performance of Tboli rituals, music and dance.
Tboli Traditional Dress
Remarkably Tboli tribal visual identity was only created as we know it today 60 or so years ago, when Christian missionaries arrived in the area bringing with them mother of pearl beads, cotton fabrics and threads. Before this date Tboli women only wore simple silhouettes made from natural woven abaca fibre with no resounding design features.
Tboli traditional dress is the most impressive tribal ensemble I have seen to date. Traditional colours are jet black, scarlet red, pearl white, canary yellow and tropical green. Outfits are comprised of a hand woven sarong skirt tied into a knot at the front, folded over at the waist and secured in place with a wide beaded belt fringed with brass bells. Long sleeved v-neck blouses have a zip opening on both side seams and are decorated with embroidery, cross stitch, applique ribbons and sequins or beads. The jewel of the crown is the famous hand carved wooden head dress.
Land of the Dream Weavers
The Tnalak is the traditional woven textile of the Tboli people. Mystical symmetrical patterns inspired by their dreams are created from memory and transferred in to fabric using the Ikat method. Ikat is a time consuming and tedious technique only used by the most patient artisans. Yarns covered in bees wax are tightly wrapped around the warp threads in patterns before dying and then being placed on the loom. During the dyeing process, the tied parts are resistant to the dye, when the binds are cut they will retain the natural colour of the original fibre underneath.
The Abaca plant is native to the Philippines and is used as the main fibre in Tnalak fabric. Cousin to the banana plant, Abaca trucks can grow up to 22ft in just 8 months. Once they are cut down the trunk is halved and stripped into 1 inch ribbons before shredding with a knife into individual lengths of fibre suitable for weaving. Natural dyes from leaves and roots grown locally are boiled with the Abaca to create the traditional Tnalak colours of black, red and beige.
The Tboli tribe are a mix of Animist and Christian faith. They believe that non-human entities such as animals, plants, and mountains etc possess a spiritual essence, along side worshiping Jesus Christ. The Abaca plant itself is known as the spirit god ‘Fu Dalu’. The making of Tnalak fabric is seen a very special gift from nature and the spirit world, therefore it is forbidden to step over or walk on Tnalak fabric at any point. It was brought to my attention that a fashion designer recently bought bolts of Tnalak fabric and manufactured shoes with it. This was seen as sacrilege to the Tboli people.
During my visit to the Tboli weaving centre Manlikika Bayan, it was evident that they were still mourning the loss of their leader, grandmother and National Living Treasure Awardee Mrs Lang Dulay, who’s memorial grave lays opposite the entrance. Lang Dulay was known nationwide as the originator and master weaver of Tnalak. Weaving since the age of 12, Lang Dulay translated over 100 designs from her dreams and made it her personal mission to instill her passion and vision for Tboli culture on her family, by taking her 18 grandchildren and great grandchildren out of school to train them in the making of Tnalak. Tourists from all over the Philippines would flock to see and buy Tnalak from the living legend and her aspiring proteges, but last year at the age of 91 she passed away from a stroke leaving behind a financially dependent family of weavers with little other employability skills. The family are now desperately trying to find the balance between economic stability and continuing their cultural heritage now that Lang Dulay the master dreamweaver has gone.
“The lives of T’boli women are meaningless if they don’t know how to weave T’nalak,” Lang Dulay
For me the Tboli are certainly the most diversely skilled textile artisans I have encountered on my travels. I am indeed in awe of their traditional dress and both bewildered and impressed that they only created such an inspiring visual identity a mere 60 years ago.
The fact that so many tourists are afraid to go there is a real detriment and threat to their economic and cultural survival. The T’nalak is reknown as the cultural emblem of the Tboli, but with out visitors could the weavers dreams and traditions be over as quick as it started? It is my hope that preservation of T’boli culture and craftsmanship is not only the regional pride of South Cotabato and Mindanao Island, but for the whole of the Philippines.
I am so glad I went to meet the Tboli tribe after all the drama surrounding their circumstances. Communities living on Lake Sebu live uncomplicated lives detached from the violence known in other provinces of Mindanao Island. One woman told me that the robbery at a local factory a few months previously (which resulted in a shoot out between the authorities and culprits) was nothing to do with the indiginous people of the area, but this one off event had dramatically effected tourism and thus the livelihoods of people living there.
I did not feel unsafe at any point on my visit to Lake Sebu. I drove around in blacked out jeep and was accompanied by 2 members from the department of tourism at all times. Would I go there as a solo female western backpacker?? Probably not, but I think hiring a tour guide and a vehicle for a few days is a feasible, sensible and safe solution for visiting the area and meeting the Tboli Tribe.
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Are you a weaver? Have you visited the Tboli tribe before or want to go? Do you know any other tribal groups in the Philippines? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.
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Due to recent civil conflict in the region it is advised that all tourists contact the Department of Tourism in advance to seek travel advice and recommendations. To visit the Tboli in Lake Sebu, please contact the Regional Director Nelly Dillera at email@example.com
Bac Ha market is heavily populated with the colour clashing, pattern loving, bead encrusted, Flower Hmong hill tribe people of Vietnam. Women and girls of all ages are a sight of sore eyes sporting an almost psychedelic colour pallet of rainbow adorned cultural clothes that contrast against the drab concrete backdrop of the town. 2 1/2 hrs drive from Sapa makes Bac Ha market it a worthy destination for any textiles tourist traveling the Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces.
Are you looking for the best fashion show in Asia? Do you love handcrafted artisan ensembles? Unknown to most is that Vietnam has a staggering 54 different ethnic minorities, many of whom’s cultural costumes are more creatively crafted and indigenously inventive than those so called couture designers in Paris.
Check out Haute Culture’s essential guide to the real originators of individuality and style in South East Asia.
“No. No you can not see”, was the answer I was not willing to accept when investigating the location of the elusive Lolo people. The Lolo people (also known as the Yi people in China) are a very special 1 in 54 ethnic minorities from Vietnam living in the tiny remote village of Lung Cu. Lolo people believe in folkloric stories, sharing tales of the past through dancing, festivals and playing music on sacred brass drums. They worship and celebrate legends, spirits and gods of nature. Lolo people have no distinguishable identifying features in the day time because they wear regular western clothes, but during very special occasions a few times a year the women wear the most elaborate, vibrant and intricate costumes.
Transcending Ethnicity and Crossing Cultural Identity: Interview with Alisher Sharip about his new photography exhibition Babylon 21Posted on May 31, 2015
A few months ago I was invited to join a photography project exploring the identity of international residents living in Hanoi. The only mandatory obligation was that the model must wear a headdress of some kind in a bid to disguise their traditional appearance. Intrigued I agreed to participate as I saw it as a rare opportunity to appropriate my Vietnamese hill tribe accessories with contemporary fashion trends for a credible cause. (reading time 10 minutes)
About Babylon 21 Transcending Ethnicity
“This series of photographic portraits by Alisher Sharip represents the diversity of Hanoi, an amazing ethnic and cultural melting pot that is home to people from all around the world.
Moving from portrait to portrait, the viewer’s eyes go on a journey of individuals shaped not only by the communities in which they grew up but also by life in cosmopolitan Hanoi, an environment that often triggers creativity and allows a person the chance to develop abilities otherwise repressed by the demanding social-economic reality of the places they came from.
Life in Hanoi challenges identity at all levels, professional, social, religious and cultural. By stepping out of the stream of daily routine and creating unconventional images, the participants question the concept of ethnicity itself and demonstrate how contemporary cities eliminate ethnic boundaries and create global citizens.” For more information visit the event page on Facebook.
Interview with photography Alisher Sharip
- Can you briefly describe your background and experience in relation to working creatively and living in a multicultural society.
In a way I’ve lived in a multicultural societies for all my life. Born in a mixed family in Uzbekistan (USSR at that time), I grew up in Belarus, did my MA and PhD in St. Petersburg, worked in the US and Vietnam. In all those countries I’ve always been a foreigner occupied in creative fields like icon painting, copywriting, journalism, TV production and scholarly research. The camera has been my working tool since early 2000s and a few years ago I started to make a living as a freelance photographer.
- How did the project start? Are there any personal experiences that inspired the project?
It started spontaneously. I was working on a series of portraits of Mai Khoi the singer, and one day we were having a session with her and another singer, Dong Lan, they both wore scarves on their heads and I was amazed how the beauty of their facial treats stood out. Combining headpieces with ethnic clothes, I experimented the concept with a few other people. Hoang Minh Chau suggested making more similar portraits for an exhibition.
- You previously named the project Ethnica, why did you change the title to Babylon 21: Transcending Ethnicity?
Ethnica sounded too broad. At some point I started thinking how to narrow it down and focus on the national and ethnic diversity of Hanoi. Then the metaphor of Babylon popped out in my mind and I decided to use 21 as a reference to both 21st century and the number of participants that equally distributes gender presence.
- How many people from different cultures and ethnicities are involved in the exhibition?
There are people from different Asian countries, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Quite a few people in the series have mixed ethnic origins.
- What is the significance of the cultural costume, headdresses or props in the portraits?
My idea was to take people out of their everyday context, make them look different but still the way they wanted to look. So I asked them to prepare any sort of ethnic outfit they could think of – not necessarily representing their ethnicity but anything they associated themselves with. It was interesting to observe how some of them preferred their traditional costumes and others experimented putting together various national elements of costume, accessories and props to construct their identity.
- Working in fashion design and specialising in cultural costume I understand that our first impressions are often heavily influenced by the way individuals dress, do you think Babylon 21: Transcending Ethnicity challenges social stereotyping?
In a way it does. When we see a person dressed like that we are puzzled for a moment trying to classify what we see. Traditional “hippie” label doesn’t always work these days so we might have to think of a new decoding system to read people’s style.
- As a participant for me the project aspires to explore, challenge and combine the visual identity of the diverse ethnic and cultural community currently residing in Hanoi, would you say this is a accurate perception?
Yes and no. I didn’t try to show what people really wear in Hanoi in order to create or highlight their identity. It was rather an attempt to change the frame, get rid of conventional brand clothes that we usually wear without thinking twice. I wanted people to look different. And I liked the transformation. Human beauty shines when our ordinary perception is shaken a bit, when we visually slapped in the face and puzzled for a moment. I can’t wait to see participants at the opening, browsing among their portraits, taking selfies next to their framed images and comparing themselves with their photographic doubles.
- Will you reveal the portrait participants true ethnicity or will the observer have to guess?
I decided not to reveal their ethnic identities. Let it be a little hide and seek for the audience.
- How do you think multicultural communities have changed the creative scene in Vietnam over the past 10 years?
Dramatically. I came here 8 years ago and couldn’t find a joint with live music. Vietnamese artists were trying to create new forms coming up with something that had been out of date at the Western art scene for decades. I observed the emergence of the musical groups and was myself a part of it for a few years. I remember how traveling musicians Jason and Luke started Cinemusic Wednesdays and Phuong Dang was a part of it too and the place was always packed with local and foreign listeners. Now you can just open Grapewine or TNH and pick a gig where to go every day. It’s a completely different world and huge part of this change is multicultural influence.
On Wednesday 3rd June 2015 my portrait and 20 others will feature in a photography exhibition titled Babylon 21, exploring how contemporary multicultural living in the 21st century can challenge, change and create continuous conversation questioning who we perceive people to be based on their appearance.
Babylon 21 photography exhibition opens on Wednesday 3rd June 2015 at 6pm at Chula 43, NHAT CHIEU , 396 LAC LONG QUAN, Hanoi, Vietnam.
The Vietnamese Ao Dia is a high neck, slim fitting 5 panel dress, with side splits to the waist and generally worn with palazzo style trousers. It is the symbol of Vietnamese beauty and can be seen almost everyday in Vietnamese culture. It is often worn for formal and special occasions by women and girls of all ages.
Vietnamese Ao Dai Event
“Hanoi Connecting Five Continents” was a colorful event boasting traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai, music, dance and fashion. Staged outside in Ly Thai To Square in the hub of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the event was to honour the 125th birth date of Vietnam’s revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The department of culture and commerce wanted to celebrate Hanoi’s cultural diversity with a creative collaboration by combining Vietnamese and international fashion designers with it’s expatriate residents.
French, English, American, Russian, Australian, African, Spanish, and Vietnamese beauties proudly paraded down the catwalk in front of government officials, locals and curious tourists. It has been along time since I have done any modeling, probably over 10 years, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Cross Cultural Collaboration
The renowned designer’s NtK Nhat Dung ( Vietnam) and Diego Cortizas of Chula (Spain) presented their contemporary interpretations of the traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai. Both designers collections were inspired by Vietnams rich and exuberant artistic aesthetics. They applied an assortment of textile techniques such as hand painting, embroidery, beading and applique on a luxurious selection of multi colored silks, brocades and velvets. The designs themselves exhibited influences from Vietnamese ethnic hill tribes, french iron works and ceramic floor tiles.
With special thanks to my friends Hoang Minh Chau, Diego at Chula and Nhat Duong for making me feel beautiful, and Morgan Ommer for his lovely photos.
It was 35 degrees in blazing sunshine, I was slightly shell shocked and extremely sweaty after 6 hours of fittings, rehearsals, hair and make up, but all the other models, organisers and friends made it such a fun and memorable experience. I felt proud after two years of living in Hanoi to be offered such a special opportunity to wear Vietnamese Ao Dai, the symbol of feminine beauty, and the pride of the Vietnamese people.
Have you tried on a Vietnamese Ao Dai? How do you think the Vietnamese National dress compares to other countries? Where are the best places to have Vietnamese Ao Dai made in Hanoi? I would love to hear from you, please share your experiences and recommendations in the comments box below.
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