Amongst objects in the Social Thread exhibition such as embroidered Hungarian shawls, Hmong story cloths, and Polish lace runners, the Filipino tapis is an object with a deceptively heavy history. When I saw it in the online collection archive, it felt almost dull compared to the other vibrant pieces. Still, when I saw it in person, I found myself gravitating toward the fabric. It is one of the only two garments within the exhibition, which added an extra layer of intimacy when I touched the cloth. It was much softer than I expected, perfect for wrapping around the waist. It struck me that this object was like a stone in the ocean, miles away from its place of origin and disconnected from the culture which made it.
It was difficult for me to not feel a bit empathetic. As a first-generation Filipino-American, I consider myself pretty far from my own place of origin. The Philippines, for me, was always seen through the lenses of my father’s childhood memories, my mother’s adolescent hardships, or my relatives who I visited once every blue moon. A beautiful, idyllic place, but not ‘home’. What was ‘home’ for this object? Was it the white walls of the collection’s storage, or the mountains of the Philippine Islands? This sense of shared heritage motivated me to begin my research into the tapis and its multilayered history which has survived centuries of colonial violence.
The word ‘tapis’ refers to a woven skirt, meant to be wrapped around the waist and fastened with a belt. In pre-colonial Philippines, women from different Indigenous groups would weave and wear the tapis, incorporating symbols which indicated their heritage and beliefs. For the Ifugao people, one of several Indigenous peoples of the Philippines, weaving is a craft which carries particularly great cultural importance. Alongside their ownership of the Ifugao Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ifugao are known for their longstanding resistance against Spanish colonial rule and their continuing traditions of textile weaving.
Ifugao weaving is often done by Ifugao elders after performing a ritual to bless the weaving materials and the craftsperson. Importance is placed on the thread spacing and correct count variations, taking care to not leave space between weavings and avoiding fabric defects. While contemporary weavers are known to use simpler patterns, certain patterns have continued to be used by the Ifugao. For example, the tinaggu pattern on this tapis is a representation of the deified ancestors of the Ifugao. Its weaving is meant to evoke protection from the ancestors for the welfare of their descendants and their village.
The tapis of the Helen Louis Allen Textile Collection was bought in the 1980s from a market on Luzon Island. According to the collection’s object files, it was meant to be a copy of a traditional Ifugao tapis, also known as a tolgè. The Ifugao tolgè is made of panels of bark cloth, woven on a loom, and then hand-sewn together. The weaving patterns, symbols, and construction of the fabric are most consistent with the gammit, which is an ornate tolgè used in Ifugao wedding dances and other celebrations. While tolgè are usually colored red, black, and white, other colors are not unheard of, as tolgè have varied wildly in their construction, color, and weaving throughout Ifugao history.
However, while the cloth was bought in the 1980s, the actual weaving of the cloth took place in the 1970s. The 1970s is a decade remembered for the implementation of martial law by former Philippine president Ferdinand E. Marcos. Marcos’ time as president is remembered for its record of human rights abuses, violent suppression of political dissent, and violence against Indigenous peoples of the Philippines. To combat the international fallout of Marcos’ regime, the administration began to expand the Philippines’ tourism industry which involved building resorts and hotels on Indigenous land. Alongside the construction of commercial buildings came the commercialization of Indigenous landmarks, including the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
While this economic influx of revenue may have helped Marcos’ poor international reputation, none of the profits went to the Indigenous peoples whose land was being capitalized upon. As the government poured resources into conserving the Ifugao Rice Terraces for future tourists, the Ifugao people turned to selling woven goods and souvenirs to tourists. Some Ifugao abandoned their previous occupations as farmers and craftspeople to become tour guides or performers who conducted cultural and religious rituals for the entertainment of tourists. Under the tourism boom of the Marcos regime, the symbolic and cultural value of traditional Ifugao crafts and rituals quickly became commoditized, and the history of Ifugao colonial resistance quickly faded from people’s memories.
Today, the Philippine government continues to target and harass Indigenous leaders and activists who resist government projects taking place on Indigenous land. This harassment is done under the guise of combating ‘communist insurgency’, bypassing a policy which requires “free, prior, and informed consent” from Indigenous groups to build government projects on Indigenous land. As of this writing, the current Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. (son of Ferdinand E. Marcos) has not enacted any policy to protect Indigenous rights.
Despite this, the Ifugao people continue on. Efforts to preserve Ifugao culture can be seen in the creation of UCLA’s Ifugao Heritage Galleries, where Ifugao scholars work to decolonize Ifugao history and keep traditional crafts alive. The galleries host a weaving room on the first floor which showcases weaving equipment, and hosts events for weavers to produce their craft and train others in traditional Ifugao weaving. Additionally, recent efforts have been made to decolonize the teaching of Philippine history at the elementary and high school levels. The Indigenous Peoples Education Center established on Luzon island in 2016 aims to localize and contextualize local culture in the curriculums, textbooks, and learning resources of all subjects.
Between these ideas of decolonization and craft commoditization, the HLATC’s tapis lies within a liminal space. It calls the value of authenticity into question, asking us where the line is drawn between traditional craftsmanship and tourist souvenirs. So given what we know, is this object somehow less valuable for being a copy? It’s a question I hesitate to say ‘yes’ to, as someone deeply attuned to the political and cultural factors which played into its creation. In addition, I can’t help but wonder what that would imply about my existence. As a Filipino raised in America, am I just a copy of what my parents were, or am I somehow less authentic for being Filipino in the diaspora? Does this lower the value of my joyful memories and connections with Filipino culture? Does this invalidate my experiences of anti-Asian hatred in America? I certainly don’t think this is the case, and my family would be horrified to hear anyone suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the answer does not involve any line-drawing at all. For a culture such as the Ifugao, preserving heritage in a country under colonial rule and imperialist violence is much more complicated. Craft commoditization is a double-edged sword; a phenomenon that reduces traditional crafts to their monetary value, but also a phenomenon that allows the Ifugao people to make a living and continue their traditions of weaving. After all, the ability to preserve tradition is one that should never be taken for granted. Like many of the textiles in Social Threads, the Ifugao tapis is the unique product of a longstanding cultural legacy of resistance.
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Michael Rubinos is a first-generation student of Filipino heritage, pursuing his bachelor’s degree in art history at UW-Madison.