July is the most festive month of the year for South Cotabato as it celebrates its foundation anniversary and the T’nalak Festival. But for the Tboli indigenous women who create the revered T’nalak cloth where the festival name is attributed, it is just like any other month where one has to weave for art and for a living.
For Barbara K. Ofong, one of the few living Tboli master weavers of T’nalak, an abaca-based cloth with unique and intricate geometric designs in prominently red and black colors, in the scenic Lake Sebu town, July is no different from the usual days. Tnalak na gina himo ko sir halin dose anyos ko, amu na ni kabuhi ko bisan ano nga bulan (I’ve been weaving T’nalak since I was 12, this has been my life no matter the month), she said in broken Hiligaynon dialect in a shy voice. Tbolis have their own dialect but Hiligaynon is widely used as a medium in the province.
Lake Sebu and its indigenous inhabitants, the Tbolis are known for T’nalak weaving, an art craft practiced by select women who weaves their own unique geometric designs from their dreams. To this day, only a few Tboli women can master the art of weaving the cloth which is considered sacred by the tribe.
Ofong or Ye Barang to her community is one of the seniors in the art at 57 years old. On regular days, she works in the frames of her old loom carefully tracing with her hands the pattern of her new design. Inside the Tboli longhouse, she works in silence, focused, manifesting her dedication to the craft.
Tnalak as Art
The whole weaving process takes months and requires hard work and patience. Members of the family of the weavers participate in the process from harvesting of abaca fibers, extracting of natural colors from plants to dyeing preparation. The actual weaving is left to the women masters like Ofong.
Her products are classified as among the finest with signatures indicating her unique designs that can be seen only by a trained eye. The colors are in right tones, the design unique to the weaver and the texture finish is fine.
A roll of Ofong’s Tnalak of 3 meters by 24 inches can be finished for three months and can be sold for 600 pesos to 1200 pesos a meter depending on quality and design.
Maria D. Todi, a Tboli cultural worker, can determine high quality T’nalak clothes like the creations of Ofong. Todi is a Board member of the Tnalak Tao S’bu, a group of 8 People’s Organizations in Lake Sebu created to support producers of Tboli handcrafts, including Tnalak, in marketing and certifying the quality its quality. The same group exerts efforts to preserve the cultural identity of the Tboli products.
The modern days of T’nalak
With modernity and calls for using T’nalak in modern fashion, Tao S’bu has become more concerned with how the cloth is being mass-produced. In a way, it is a threat to the craft and the tradition, said Todi. You can see bags, key chains, wallets made of Tnalak and even lengths of the cloth sold in a very cheap price. These are made poorly and dyed with synthetic colors that fades in short time, and some use non-Tboli colors, said Todi. Some are weaved not by the Tbolis. There are also quality T’nalak pieces by Tboli weavers but are bought cheap at 200 pesos per meter or even less by traders.
Tnalak Tao S’bu is currently crafting the code of practice to formalize its set of standards for authentic Tboli products. It’s one way we can be sure that the real Tboli quality is maintained. It’s one way to preserve culture and not discourage modification according to the demand of the modern times, said Todi.
Some of the members of Tnalak Tao S’bu export their products to Japan and other foreign countries under strict standards. With the efforts of the group, our products will soon reach places with “Made in Lake Sebu, Philippines” tag and serials codes indicating the identities of the weavers and designers. That’s one cause for us to celebrate once realized.
The provincial celebration meanwhile is ongoing and will culminate on the 18th. It’s the province’s 50th foundation anniversary and the 17th T’nalak Festival. Streets in this City, the provincial capital, are filled with vibrant bunting banners and posters with colors dominated by red and black patterns inspired by T’nalak. There will be a party for balikbayans, nightly band shows and sports activities. There will be street revelries and competitions to showcase the Indigenous, the Muslim and the Christian cultures. The festival after all is a dedication to cultures more than just the Tboli’s. It is said to celebrate the unity amidst diversity of culture and beliefs.
On weekends there will be motocross and off-road competitions and more shows. On the same weekends, however, Ofong will be visiting the School of Living Tradition, an informal school run by Todi, to teach the Tboli children how to weave. “Amu ning isa ka paagi nga mapadayon ang T’nlak sa mga kabataan (this is one way we can hand down the art to the younger generations), Ofong said. Modernity is enticing. But for Ofong, a nominee for Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan award (equivalent to being a national artist) by National Commission for Culture and Arts, she has to do her part to keep the traditions intact.
"It’s T’nalak Festival and we are happy it is being celebrated, said Todi. But for us every day is a celebration of our art, the art that carries the signature of our culture and a source of our livelihood at the same time."
"Di ko sure kung maka attend ko. Damo pa ko dapat tapuson nga Tnalak (I’m not sure if I will attend the festival. I have weaves to finish), Ofong said in whispers, smiling but with eyes focused on the details of her weave.