DILI, December 14th, 2021—Timor-Leste is celebrating an important cultural milestone. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has announced that the country’s application for the inscription of its hand-woven traditional textile, tais, as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” has been successful.
Tais is now listed alongside renowned cultural assets from other countries, such as traditional hand puppetry in Egypt, the “bisalhães” black pottery manufacturing process in Portugal, and the ancient art of hand-crafting “phinisi” boats in Indonesia. The listing has opened the way to the allocation of a nearly $270,000 grant from the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund for the implementation of a safeguarding plan for Tais. The Timor-Leste government and development partners will also contribute funding to the initiative.
The project is expected to raise public awareness about Tais, motivate youth to take an interest in Tais and learn the weaving techniques, increase income opportunities for weavers, attract tourists’ interest in Tais as part of Timor-Leste’s culture, and strengthen weavers’ networks.
The UNESCO application conditions are stringent and preparation of the documentation started in January 2019. USAID’s Tourism For All Project provided support to help Timorese authorities and stakeholders, starting with the creation of a National Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage (IHC) to coordinate the application procedure. One of the primary UNESCO requirements is the close involvement of the various stakeholders—ranging from Government representatives to national NGOs and community weaving groups—to ensure a full consensus supporting the application. This was achieved through consultations at a forum organized by USAID, “Protecting, Preserving, and Promoting Tais: the Road towards UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Recognition.” The final step in the application process was the production of a short film required by UNESCO, to describe the significance of Tais and the traditional spinning, dyeing and weaving skills used to make it.
Natural products used to dye tais yarn & Timor-Leste’s traditional hand-woven textile, tais (Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner)
“We would like to congratulate Timor-Leste on achieving this significant milestone,” said USAID Mission Director Zema Semunegus. “UNESCO recognition validates the cultural importance of Tais to Timor-Leste and the valuable contribution of the women who create this beautiful textile. It will help to support family livelihoods throughout the country for generations to come and also enhance the cultural tourism offering.”
More than 100 people from local and international organizations, development partners and Tais weavers contributed to drawing up the safeguarding plan. This three-year initiative will be implemented by IHC. Activities will include promoting Tais in fairs, creating a television programme and adding Timor-Leste’s cultural elements, including Tais, to school curricula. The project will also conduct field research and document and photograph the raw materials used and the Tais products in the communities and local markets. The results of this research will be used to develop a permanent exhibition, which will also include live demonstrations by weavers. Schoolteachers will then receive training on the content of the exhibition and be encouraged to bring their students to visit. Other project activities include creating a Tais weaving competition for youth, providing training on cotton cultivation and natural dyeing, supporting weavers’ management skills and livelihoods through training, and a formal certification system.
Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner
“We really appreciate the contribution of the American people in achieving the UNESCO nomination,” said the Secretary of State for Art and Culture of Timor-Leste, Teofilo Caldas. “The Tourism For All Project‘s involvement was important and necessary in assisting the government with drawing up the safeguarding plan. We will still need their support in developing school curriculum content and technical assistance with Tais certification.”.
Local NGO Timor Aid has been working with Tais weavers for more than two decades, and the organization was represented on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage committee. Timor Aid co-founder Maria do Ceu Lopes da Silva said: “We are bursting with pride to see our long-term dream turn into reality. Ultimately the real winners of the UNESCO listing are the Timor-Leste weavers. Tais remains a viable economic empowerment for rural women. I hope that the UNESCO pronouncement will strengthen the support for the Timor-Leste weavers, especially in the area of preservation.”
Tais plays an important role in the lives of Timorese people and their sense of national identity. The textile is used for decoration and to create traditional clothing for men and women. People use Tais to welcome new-borns as well as for weddings and funerals, traditional ceremonies and festivals. Lopes is passionate about the cultural value of tais: “The traditional Tais is produced with corresponding rituals and specific colours, motifs, patterns and singular techniques that vary across different ethno-linguistic groups. Woven textiles bear witness to history, traditions, emotions, tragedies, and achievements of a clan, a tribe and of a nation”.
It is compulsory for participants to wear tais as they participate in this traditional cultural ceremony to celebrate the corn harvest (Photo c. Chamot)
Tais is traditionally handwoven by women using a simple backstrap loom. The production process, however, is quite complex and time-consuming. It starts with raw cotton bolls, which are ginned and spun by hand into yarn. The men in the community are tasked with gathering the materials from trees and plants grown locally that are used dye the yarn.
“Timor Aid is implementing a UNESCO project to study indigenous plants used for tais making. Tais has its own eco-system. All raw materials for tais making, cotton and natural dyes, come from the environment. It’s impossible to develop and sustain tais small industries throughout the country, and its preservation without the required eco-friendly raw materials,” Lopes said.
Some pieces produced by expert weavers take months to complete and can sell for hundreds of dollars to visitors. Other items are reserved for community use and are not for sale. Not only is tais an important source of income for Timorese women and their families, it is an essential expression of the country’s history and culture through the motifs woven into the patterns. For example, in Oe-cusse, where Portuguese missionaries brought the Catholic faith to Timor-Leste more than five centuries ago, nuns introduced patterns to teach local weavers to incorporate European religious themes, such as angels, macramé copies, and images inspired by the artist Botticelli into their tais. In other municipalities, tais motifs reflect ancient traditional Timorese legends, such as the myth of the crocodile, and local flora and fauna.
Jose Sabino Ximenes from IHC member organization Alola Foundation said, “Currently, some of the original tais in the territory of Timor Leste are almost threatened with extinction because they have been influenced by outside cultures. According to my experience, the designs and patterns of ancient tais compared to today are very different. Young people also pay less attention to original designs but want to pursue targets when receiving orders from customers. Moreover, there are tais printing entrepreneurs from overseas who copy traditional tais motifs and sell at low prices. This seriously threatens traditional tais weavers in their work. UNESCO recognition of tais as an intangible cultural heritage is very important for Timor-Leste”.
Photo c. Elvis Guterres
The UNESCO listing recommends that the Government monitors and mitigates any unintended consequences arising from over-tourism and over-commercialization and to seek a balance between the economic and the social and cultural functions of Tais. Tais is one of the “must have” souvenirs bought by tourists, a vital market for local weavers. It also inspires the fledgling fashion industry in Timor-Leste, presenting a commercial opportunity, but also a threat to the integrity of Tais culture. The UNESCO project’s focus on youth will help to protect the cultural tradition of Tais in the long term.
Ximenes said that the Alola Foundation has been focusing on tais weaving projects involving young people, especially girls who have dropped out of school, to learn to weave together with their mothers and grandmothers so that the traditions can be passed on to a new generation. “Gradually a small number of young girls began to learn to weave and produce tais for sale through souvenir shops in Dili, fairs and markets. Their products are starting to improve and the quality is guaranteed. They have received orders from new customers and they are now very enthusiastic about weaving”.
Lopes agrees that the key to preserving tais culture is youth. The 24-year struggle for independence from Indonesia caused irreparable loss to the traditional ways of producing tais: “Many master weavers died. Immigration and forced displacement of Timorese from rural areas to cities, from highlands to valleys, and environmental destruction contributed to the shortfall of raw materials and loss of skills and original designs, many of which were never to be recovered. Timor-Leste doesn’t have a written tradition. Unlike other countries, particularly in the Asia region, where traditional textiles have recorded history, Timor-Leste’s Tais production was based on creating a memory chain of knowledge.” she said, “Cultural heritage is important, because it makes the past continuous. Weaving, songs, dances, languages and rituals, strengthen our cultural identity. They connect us to a range of emotions, feelings, offer information, inspiration, education, myths and facts about the lifestyle and development of our communities, relationships, successes and tragedies.”
“Urgent monetary needs force the weavers to produce cheap tais, woven with industrial yarn of poor quality, for quick sale. This creates conflict between tradition and modernity,” Lopes warned, ”UNESCO recognition is a huge step forward to ensure the preservation of traditional Tais production. It will have a positive impact at national and international levels. UNESCO recognition will enhance national pride, strengthen cultural identity, and officially acknowledge and honor weavers’ artwork and their skills. It will provide an opportunity to raise the recognition of Tais not only as tradition, but also as a tourism product, which will contribute to expanding economic opportunities for rural women. Tais could be the future Roving Ambassador of Timor-Leste for the promotion of our national cultural heritage around the world.”.
For organizations like Timor Aid and the Alola Foundation, tais producers, the government and its development partners, the UNESCO grant will open a new chapter in the history of tais. They will be working hard together to preserve tais heritage at home and to promote it abroad. And now that the first UNESCO application has succeeded, as a result of their experience they will also be able to apply for additional nomination files for other Timorese cultural assets in the future.
Tais is ever-present in Timorese art (Photo c. USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner)
Author: USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner