Yabing Masalon Dulo

Ikat Weaver, 2016
(born 8 August 1914)

By Marian Pastor Roces

A century

Yabing Dulo believes herself older than ninety. Her identity card marks that age, however, and date of birth, the fourteenth of August supposedly 1910. Since the venerable ikat-dyer has a memory sharper than blades, it seems always best to follow her counsel. She does know for a fact that she was born in a place already called Landan in that long ago time. The exact sitio was and is still named Amgu-o, a settlement of a few related families within Landan, today a barangay, a constituent unit of a town. During the early twentieth century, Amgu-o was a cluster of houses thoroughly unconnected to the national political organization. It was a hilly, forested place where streams were punctuated by all sizes of rocks. The trees, then, were ancient.

Now ancient as well — accepting the honorific Fu, elder, with no hauteur — Fu Yabing has lived long enough to have seen Amgu-o emerge as an exposed, dry place sans those trees. Her thatch-wood-concrete domicile speaks of a permanence unconnected to the archaic system of shifting agriculture that gave its practitioners to move entire hamlets following the obligation to regenerate soil after extended use; giving that land back to the forest. Today, visitors reach Fu Yabing on foot, or by motorcycle, or a four-wheel drive vehicle through pockmarked dirt passes; although it must be added, they are not overly daunted. Landan is connected to the rest of the country by feeder roads, however flimsy, and through the national political order, however tenuous in these parts. 

It may indeed be suggested that it is Fu Yabing and her art that is unconnected to the relevant order of things. They have been loosened free from their old coordinates in both nature and culture.  Living in radically different circumstances from her arboreal birthplace, among a people who in that past engaged in precise reciprocal instead of market relations, she carries on with an exquisite tradition that at present grafts poorly with the cash economy. But she has always faced the disjunct between systems by deploying her gift: the expert making of fine warp ikat textiles. With the GAMABA (Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan) recognition, it is clear she has prevailed.

Ikat and the forests

Fu Yabing was born in an Amgu-o where the plant and animal life were differentiated to minute degrees by the locals in the vocabulary of their tongue, Blaan. Among them, some held encyclopedic lore — which none divided into seen and unseen reality, or science and enchantment. The adepts knew their biology, climate, and geology invariably in relation to states of being; knew their arts of transformation, not the least, wielding the pigmenting, or toxic, or life-enhancing, or mysterious qualities of barks, roots, leaves, and strange small petioles in various mixes in various preparations. Which is to say, the minutiae of life in its many forms was saturated with meaning.

That their forests were fecund with possibility was more than a matter of utility. Fu Yabing lived as a youth in a milieu with a density of stimuli that encouraged skill and imagination. Aside from, for instance, dyestuff that were also medicine deployed by weaver/dyers who were also pharmacologists and healers, the forebears took from forests an education in complex biological systems. Plant and animal life supported systems of reciprocation and exchange that embedded human within plant and animal communities. When Fu Yabing’s generation took from the forest fibrous material that they worked into art, that art, in turn, supported the integrity of natural/cultural interconnection.

To be sure, this was before the husbanding in plantations of that fiber plant, a kind of banana, known to the Blaan as lutáy and abaka to other Philippine peoples. This Musa textilis Neé, a source of the world’s strongest fiber, used to be a creature of thick forests, growing in their understory well beneath the sometimes triple-canopy cover in these parts. The Blaan of the early twentieth century would have understood lutáy’s relation to the interspecies dynamics of tropical rainforests. 

This much can be inferred from the extended literature on related cultures. (Unfortunately, no substantive ethnography has been written on the Blaan to date.) The warp ikat, lutáy textiles of the Blaan belong to a tradition common to the Bagobo, Blaan, Tboli, Mandaya, and Mansaka (and to a lesser extent, to the Subanen) of Mindanao. Moreover — although cotton is used because Musa textilis does not grow south of Sangir and Talaud Islands — the technique is also shared with the Iban of Kalimantan, the Toraja of Sulawesi, the Atoni and Tetum of both Timor Barat and East Timor, and the nearby peoples of Sumba, Flores, and Roti of Nusa Tenggara Timur. These related ethnolinguistic groups also shared a history of cultural formation amid thick forests. For all these cultures, it was in this art-making that often conflicting divine forces were aligned, equilibrium constructed, and human abilities given to serve the social order.

It was, most important for all these cultures, in the dyeing of lutáy warp threads, prior to weaving, that an imagination at once mythic and scientific was sustained.

 Although no longer. In Mindanao, the forests are for the most part an extinct form of community. Among all the peoples who used to ikat in Mindanao, ikat is, for the most part, an extinct form of art-making, community-making, equilibrium-making. And but for Fu Yabing Dulo and only one or two others (one of whom is her daughter Lamena), Blaan ikat dyeing is an extinct form of human endeavor in a world gone the way of the forests.

Arc of change

A settlement of about eighty households, Amgu-o today is tucked behind one of the largest pineapple plantations in the world. Its operations began soon after Fu Yabing’s birth, during the American colonial occupation of the Philippines. Mindanao was among the United States’ lands “of promise” for industrialized agriculture. In the wake of this aggressive project on this Philippine island, the Blaan were perforce marginalized in a literal, geographic sense: they were one way or another thrust into small spaces left out of industrial estates. The municipality of both plantation and fringes is Polomolok, an old name; in a province called South Cotabato, a name circa the 1970s. Until then, Polomolok was understood to be located in a vast province bigger than several U.S. states, which was named for a stone fort built by Muslims, kuta batu, Cotabato.

Plantation and fringe communities are at the fertile lower inclines of a dormant volcano named Mtutung by the Blaan; Matutum by everyone else. The fringe communities were overrun by Communist guerrillas since the 1970s. At the end of the twentieth century, these areas were a theater of intense battles between rebel and State. The Amgu-o group was temporarily displaced together with other Blaan Koronadal of the Matutum area, who remained distinct in clothing ensemble form and speech variation from the Blaan Mahin (coastal Blaan) until that point. The latter experienced displacement and war in another period. Blaan subgroups now tend towards a single undifferentiated identity as an outcome of the shared experience of violence.

 Still, the radical social change had begun well before this latter-day period of conflict. Christian evangelization transpired nearly simultaneously with the landing, like a spaceship, of the plantation economy. The priests were Protestant Americans and a few married into Blaan families, installing themselves as indigenous preachers. Later Blaan pastors were to live in the U.S. Bible School was a regular experience since after the Second World War.

Artist and survivor

In this landscape of upheaval, Yabing Dulo and her late husband were among those who kept to animism. She also kept to her own understanding of weaving quality. Indeed she persisted with wild lutáy until these were no longer possible to acquire. Arjho Cariño Turner, Fu Yabing’s grandniece and U.S.-resident wife of an American missionary, writes of the precise period of shift: “Fu Yabing and her family own a farm in the valley called Aksugok (in Amgu-o) where I and my family also lived when I was in elementary school. I saw firsthand the kind of wild abaka she used. With the advent of [agricultural change], some of those farms were converted to produce other crops and very few parent abaka are growing wildly.”

Arjho herself has been more than a footnote in Fu Yabing’s extraordinary biography as artist and survivor. It was with her assistance and the welcoming spirit of weaving students in a nearby village of upland Blaan in Lamlifew, Malungon, Sarangani, that Fu Yabing experienced full-time work as a mentor, even if only briefly. But it was because of this stint that she traveled to Manila in 2009, to be part of an ASEAN Textile Symposium at the National Museum of the Philippines. She has since been the focus of progressively intensifying interest and adulation in her province and nationally. 

That focus brings to greater clarity a person whose ikat-dyed fabrics bear stunning similarity with museum-held Blaan pieces created more than a century ago; who allowed supporters, primarily Arjho, to mightily devise ways for the market economy to link with her art in respectful ways; and whose grit and quiet power verily intimidate all who meet her into according her a dignified space in the tumult of today.

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