Mat Weaver, 2016
(born 17 October 1940)
By Marian Pastor Roces
She was at birth, seventy-two years ago, Labnai Tumndan. It was a recognizable name in the language, Blaan, spoken in the montane hamlet of Mlasang. Her extended family reckoned their place in relation to the mlasang, a tree that, once a year, flowers profusely, sheds the inflorescences immediately, and carpets abode and environment in magnificence all at once.
Mid-twentieth century in what are now the Mindanao provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato, Blaan speakers — also called Blaan, like their language — took on the slow beginning of village life of some permanence. Their forebears had for centuries shifted domiciles systematically to regenerate land cultivated to wild rice and yams. Around the time of Labnai’s childhood, the small community understood their link to the Philippine political system to be vested in the new identity of Mlasang as Upper Lasang, a barangay of the municipality of Malapatan, in a province called Cotabato. Shortly after, this province was subdivided and Malapatan was absorbed into the new province of Sarangani.
The child Labnai, already precocious in mat weaving, took on the name Estelita in the 1950s. Protestant pastors had installed themselves among her people, had commenced fundamental social change. When Estelita married, becoming Mrs. Bantilan, she raised a family in the foreign faith.
But she kept to her mat weaving. She persisted where other women could not because her husband Tuwada was atypically supportive. Estelita also carried on because mats were her gifts of choice to people she cherished. She was never wont to monetize her mats. She carved out considerable time from domestic and farming responsibilities to accomplish some of the biggest, most subtly beautiful mats to be seen anywhere in Southeast Asia today. And, from the evidence of the mats she makes today, Estelita has continued to cultivate a personal aesthetic through half a century.
In her old age, Estelita began to be called by a new nickname, Princess. The term of endearment is spoken with the lightness of heart; also with genuine respect, especially from the other mat weavers of Upper Lasang.
There are at least half a dozen women of the village whose elevated skills in the art of the mat are recognized beyond even the Malapatan township. There are more who might have applied themselves to the discipline had personal circumstances been more congenial to taking up an art tradition that demands inordinate time and unusual powers of concentration.
Among them, however, and their families, there is happy agreement around Estelita’s superior gifts. Thus, their Princess: a worthy avatar of the entire community’s artistic heritage. The Upper Lasang women present their Princess to visitors as their star artist. They share the private joke and term of endearment — her princess-hood — as a fun part of many other matters collectively construed, realized, remembered, practiced, and celebrated.
Princess does not separate herself from the rest. While she knows she is good, there is little about her disposition and body language to suggest an outsized sense of self. During discussions, she recedes into the weavers’ group. At the end of any visit, she slips with dispatch into a home as austere as the rest. Beside her is, nearly always, her husband Tawada.
The art and the body
Like all mat weavers, Estelita’s entire body is her “loom.” The thin strips of the pandanus romblon (Pandanus copelandii merr. Bariu) emerge matrixed through deft fingers performing a personal rhythm, the beat seemingly guided by her eyes. The unwoven strips are held taut at the other end of her body, as toes curl and close around, not only these strips but, as it were, the abstraction that other people call design. The arc of her torso determines the dexterity of feet and toes. Hand/eye coordination transpires within a frame of milliseconds.
Mats are woven with mental powers deployed to realize the mathematical possibilities of color and crossover movement, synaptically (nearly simultaneously) linked to foot and handwork — the operations mediated by or through the eyes — and no muscle, no thought, no strand nor strip, no inner sentiment, and no bodily posture can be outside an inaudible rhythm.
It is to achieve this gestalt that mat weavers necessarily maintain a profound poise. In Estelita’s case, however, the serenity and poise clearly show in her person as fundamental to the artistry she exercises. She maintains the clarity in her eyes, the stillness of her mien, and her precise physical movements whether weaving, or discussing, or just listening. One takes in Estelita’s presence as a demonstration of the inextricability of serenity from the art of the mat.
Estelita’s demeanor — characterized by alertness, focus, and a calm that appears to permeate her entire body — is key to understanding mat weaving itself, among the Sarangani Blaan and the rest of the Filipinos who still know the art. It is an exercise of imagination within the parameters of a technology of making. The rigidity of the parameters is precisely what the weaver works with to play with surprising variation and compelling repetitiveness. To manage this maneuver between confinement and freedom, any good weaver needs the focused energy Estelita abundantly demonstrates. Except that in her case, a preternatural serenity appears to be the very source of genius.
Upper Lasang is an interior zone barangay of Malapatan, which has a seaward orientation like the rest of Sarangani, The vast Sarangani Bay is as though cupped by the mountains of the province. Vistas of this big water dominate the experience of place to the Blaan of these parts. They are called coastal Blaan — distinct from the Blaan of Koronadal and Tampakan in South Cotabato who have a different dialectical variant of Blaan the language, and markedly different clothing ensembles in the past. Estelita’s community of weavers, now dependent on coconut plantings, were shifting agriculturists who exchanged extensively with Maguindanao travelers and communities along the coastline.
A great many features of the Blaan clothing ensembles from a century ago, now residing in museums and private collections, were objects of this exchange: notably, mother of pearl, glass beads, cotton cloth, and threads. Metal musical instruments and horses were also exchanged from Maguindanao traders with ikat-dyed cloth the Blaan made. The system involved reciprocal relations between speakers of different languages living in mountains vis-à-vis the coasts. Mats, too, figured in these relations in the past. Indeed Estelita’s focus on mats as prize gifts for people she cares for is a residual aspect of ancient reciprocation and exchange systems of island Southeast Asia.
Throughout most of the archipelago, mats are no longer embedded in socio-spiritual complexes. Their old, ubiquitous place in a Southeast Asian cosmology — whose overt facets involve the use of mats in all passages of human life, from birth to interment in mats — has for most part vanished. It is for this reason that Estelita’s unusually enduring relationship to mats for use and circulation outside the cash economy demands recognition. It is reasonable to think that her devotion to the idea of mats as gifts, rather than as commodities for sale, is the same concept of making that allowed her to refine her art to a technical and aesthetic sophistication vested in remarkable visual restraint.
She fortuitously lives in a place congenial to the growth of the plants she needs. Mat weaving in Sarangani is associated with the Malapatan community, which has persisted with a refined level of the practice. Aside from Estelita, her women friends in Upper Lasang do carry on, albeit oriented towards market. This persistence is facilitated by the continued growth of romblon and buri, two of the plant species that mat weavers have used in these and other coastal areas of the Philippines. These are coastal zone plants today. How far into interior areas they proliferated in, in the past, is uncertain. What is known is that the mat weaving communities are those where these raw materials grow abundantly.
In Upper Lasang, Estelita’s mathematical precision and aesthetic clarity found hospitable ground in which to thrive. She lives among people who enjoy strong cultural recollection; for instance, the use as dyestuff of the bark of the tree whose extravagant shedding of inflorescence deserved its own descriptive, mlasang. It is a place where strong women, mat weavers all, had the gumption to form themselves into a legal association to manage their affairs and dealings with market. Upper Lasang is also where a woman like Estelita can partner with a man supportive of her art. Estelita is therefore right to take the nickname “Princess” in stride, to not regard herself separate from her milieu. She makes for a beautiful Princess, in truth. But her remarkable artistic and personal attribute is her ability to vanish into her community — even as she shines out.