Monday, September 5, 2016

Art and the Akha Woman

                                                   by Jim Goodman

Ulo Akha woman
       This month in Thailand it’s time for the Akha Swing Festival.   For the females of a traditional village, this is also the time to dress up in their very best Akha clothing.  Even when they have adopted modern clothing for everyday work, at this time of the year they remember their roots and express it in their clothing.  It’s also a time of artistic competition, to show off one’s skill, to create a jacket, shoulder bag, cap or headdress more outstanding than anyone else’s.  And this is in an environment where all the women and girls, while keeping within the traditional artistic parameters, strive to be original enough to be noticed. 
       Though their language does not have an equivalent for the term, they are artists without knowing it.  They pay attention to each step of the work.  While working on their creations they have a vision of its final appearance and spend much time carrying out the details of the original inspiration.  In what way are they different from painters, novelists or symphony composers?
       In the traditional Akha view art is something one wears. They don’t hang their creative work on walls. They put it on their bodies. To an Akha, art is the adornment of everyday being and to wear it is to make a statement at once ethnic, personal and aesthetic.  Living in relative isolation for so many centuries, they evolved their own idea of what was beautiful.  And maybe because the women spent so much time in the laborious process of turning cotton bolls into clothing, they imagined ways to adorn and decorate otherwise functional clothes into something that aesthetically enhanced their lives in a color-limited environment that was basically greens, browns and whatever color the sky was that day.
spinning thread while on the move
weaver at work
            The Akha woman’s outfit comprises, from head to toe, a headdress, halter top, long-sleeved, hip-length jacket, belt, knee-length skirt, a sash-pouch worn over the front of the skirt and a pair of leggings below the knees.  The components change according to age.  As children they wear round caps, skirt and jacket.  When they get older, they change to a different, more decorated cap, add the sash-pouch in front of the skirt, and wear leggings.  When fully grown up they wear the adult woman’s headdress.  The Swing Festival and Akha New Year in late December are the occasions when they can graduate from one outfit to the next.
embroidering on the way to the fields
indigo-dyed cloth hanging up to dry
        The process of making clothing begins with the collection of cotton bolls grown in the village.  The women run lumps of this through a simple gin to crush the seeds, then fluff it with a bow to remove all foreign matter.  The next step is to roll the cotton into sausage-shaped rolls. To spin thread the Akha woman takes a roll of cotton, hooks it onto her simple drop-spindle, gives it a fast turn on her thigh to set it spinning, lets it drop, then draws out the thread.
       When there’s enough thread ready, it’s time to set up the loom.  This is a simple contraption, easy to put up and take down, comprising two pairs of erect bamboo poles about six meters apart, connected by bamboo rails.  First all the warp threads are laid out on the ground for the entire length of the bolt of cloth, then dipped in a solution of rice water to give them a little starch to withstand the pressures of weaving. When dry the threads are inserted through the heddles, which separate every other thread, and are connected to two foot pedals, or treadles.  Then they insert them through a wooden reed, which keeps them all in a straight line, and finally tie them to an end beam behind and above the weaver and around an end stick at the front of the loom.
Ulo Akha child
Lomi Akha child
Standing at the back, the weaver steps on a treadle to open a shed, tosses a shuttle of weft thread through the opening, then slides the reed towards her to knock the weft thread into place.  She then presses the other treadle, opens the complementary shed and repeats the process.  The end result is a tightly bound, strong and durable bolt of cloth 22-24 cm wide (the width of the reed).  Most of this will be dyed dark blue, from the indigo plant polygonum tinctorium, which they cultivate in their gardens, and become the basic cloth for what they wear.
       The jacket requires two equal strips of indigo cloth, stitched together halfway, for the front will be left open.  The width overlaps the shoulders and the straight sleeves, which is accentuated by brightly colored piping around the shoulders as well as the lapel and hem.  Embroidery and appliqué dominate the body of the jacket and bands of contrasting colors decorate the sleeves.  What kind of embellishment the Akha woman will use depends on the sub-group.  And in Thailand alone there are three, each with its own distinctive style:  Ulo, Lomi and: Pamee.
Lomi Akha girl
Ulo Akha girl
       The Ulo style features up to thirty or more tiny running stitch lines in varying colors, covering the lower half of the jacket on both sides. Some of these are simply lines, small zigzags, loop stitches, connected x’s; others more elaborate, wider rows of complex stitches.  They have names, though many Ulo Akha women don’t know them:  spider’s tail, centipede, chicken feet, snake stripes, meeting of curves, braid, eye, ankle and flower stitches.  They ornament the finished jackets with rows of cowries or buttons across the back and chicken feather tassels or gibbon fur on the shoulder blades.   
Lomi Akha girl doing embroidery
       The distinguishing characteristic of Lomi style jackets is the use of appliqué. Women cut rows of connected diamonds, triangles or a cutout that looks like a flower from above, onto thin strips of cloth and attach them to the jacket body or sleeves.  The common jacket design has two or more rows of appliqué, with bands of embroidery in between. The stitching patterns include some of the easier Ulo ones, as well as mazes, circular stitches, connected squares, crude geometric designs and stylized trees.  Each has its special name—flower stitch, drum, moon and sky, splashes of rain, etc.—as do the appliqué designs.  Cowry shells, beads, Job’s tear seeds and horsehair tassels are commonly attached to the final result.
       In Pamee women first cross-stitch patterns on strips of perforated indigo cloth and attach from three to six rows of these on the front and rear of the jacket.  Geometric designs predominate.  There are mazes, spades, screens, squares within squares, triangles and quadrilaterals in addition to borrowings from other groups’ patterns.  Classic Pamee jackets feature probably the tiniest, most intricate needlework of all, but nowadays the tendency is towards fuller, somewhat larger patterns and the borrowed motifs include those culled from Hmong and Yao repertoires.  Pamee women attach nothing to their finished jackets and like to wear them open in the front to show off their silver-laden halters underneath.
       The same kinds of stitching, appliqué and embroidery the three Akha sub-groups use on their jackets also characterize their respective shoulder bags.  They are basically smaller versions of the jacket art.  But the ornamentation is similar to all three styles.  Two or three rows of colorful beads run vertically down each side and another row goes horizontally along the top of the bag.  The vertical rows flank rows of coins or cowry shells and chicken feather or horsehair tassels hang from the top of the rows.
making chicken feather tassels
       The Akha are the only people who turn chicken feathers into an ornament.  They use a two-string bow to do this, twisting white tail feathers around the strings and knocking them into place with a bobby pin.  They can even do this, like spinning and embroidering, while they’re walking to the fields.  The usual size for shoulder bags and caps is about 10 cm, with ones double that and more attached to headdresses.  They are usually dyed bright red, as are the horsehair tassels, which are about 5 cm long.
       The jungle is a source for other decorative materials.  If they run out of horsehair they can use the fibrous stem of a certain plant growing wild in the area.  They collect small white Job’s tears, round or cylindrical, seeds that are easy to string and attach along jacket hems or around headdresses.  They look for the iridescent wings of shiny, bright green beetles.  And in the past they used gibbon fur, with half the tuft dyed red and the other half white.
       Cowry shells, a favorite decorative item, come from the faraway sea, of course, but in past centuries people used cowries as a medium of exchange in the regional markets.  So they symbolize wealth.  To fit them flat against the cloth an Akha has to make an incision, and it’s usually done with a full-sized machete, under the hump on the back. Then the hump can be popped off with a twist of the blade.
       Coins are also used for embellishment symbolizing wealth and status—for everyone around knows the value of the particular coins.  Most favor the large silver rupees from British India days, especially for headdresses.  For jackets and shoulder bags they’ll attach the small 2-anna coins from the same period.  Poorer Akha women use large Thai one-baht coins. The old Thai 5- and 10-satang coins, with the hole in the middle, are common on bags. So are the old Burmese ‘lion coins,’ the large ones turned into buttons, the small square and scalloped ones attached to jackets, belts and bags.
        The last major decorative device is the chukhaw, or the small half-globes of silver that come in three sizes. They are a basic component of the headdresses and also used on men’s jackets.  They are pounded out in a mold mounted on a tree stump at the blacksmith’s. Nowadays there are cheaper ones of tin or aluminum available in towns.  The chukhaws are perforated on each side with a tiny hole and so are sewn directly onto the cloth.
Lomi Akha headdress and jewelry
Lomi Akha woman
       The rest of the woman’s outfit comprises the skirt, halter, skirt-guard, leggings and belt. All but the skirt and belt are embroidered and designed in the same style as the jackets and bags. The skirt is plain blue-black cloth, pleated in the back, that hangs from mid-hip to just above the knee.  In front of the skirt, to keep it from flying up, she wears an ornamented skirt-guard, called jèjaw in Akha, a unique clothing item. The beads of it sway with the skirt when she walks.
       The halter has a single diagonal strap and is designed in the same style as the other items, except the Pamee style, which is covered with diamond-shaped silver pieces.  The leggings, designed to protect them in the fields and jungles, are tied just below the knee with beads or strings and reach down to the ankles, appliquéd with bands of colors,
      To top off the outfit the Akha wear distinctive headgear, starting with infancy, for the first clothing item the new mother makes for her baby is the cap.  It is round, embroidered and decorated with beads, seeds, coins and chicken feather tassels.  As they get older, girls switch to a more elaborate design.  Lomi girls wear a silver-laden cap that is essentially the headdress without the back plate.  Pamee girls wear a round cap covered with chukhaws and diamond-shaped silver plates.  Ulo girls wear a beaded cap with several long feather tassels streaming out the back, with large tufts of red and white gibbon fur over the ears and on top.
Pamee Akha cross-stitch patterns
Pamee Akha woman
As adults, Ulo women wear a two-part, pointed headdress, wound with rows of beads, chukhaws and buttons, with long chicken feather tassels dangling down the sides and a row of silver rupees hanging over the brow.  Lomi women use more silver, bigger chukhaws, and have a repoussé plate attached to a thin plywood trapezoid mounted on the back of the cap.  Extremely long feather tassels and beads descend down the back of the headdress.  Large coins and hollow silver balls are attached to the front and sides and hang freely.  Pamee women have a wider plate at the back and the entire cap is covered with small chukhaws.  Instead of feathers and fur, they suspend various sizes of silver ornaments, ring chains and pendants.  The sides of the cap are trimmed with beads and covered in silver rupees and the weight in silver of a proper Pamee headdress is 4.5 kg.
       Finally, there is jewelry to augment the ensemble:  silver neck rings, filigreed pendants, engraved discs, earrings shaped like the Greek letter omega, bangles, rings and beads galore.  Fully dressed and adorned in the traditional way, Akha women stand out resplendently in their color-challenged jungle environment.  To get that way required many hours of meticulous workmanship.  But it was all worth it.   It made them the most beautiful beings in the forest.

Ulo Akha festival dance 
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