I remember in November 1999 when Veo asked me if I wanted to start a weaving collective. We were at her house, sitting at the loom I was learning on, adding non-traditional colours to the pattern, when Veo posed the life-changing question that led to the founding of Ock Pop Tok. What was important to us then is still important to us now, we believe that Lao textiles are beautiful and the world should see them, we thought that if we worked together as a group pooling our diverse talents we would have more success, we wanted to have fun in our work and travel the world and to afford that opportunity to everybody involved in the process of making the weavings.
We thought we could bring people together through textiles to exchange knowledge and ideas….and I am sure we thought that we could change the world through textiles. Well it changed our world that’s for sure and it’s changed the world of many of the people that work at Ock Pop Tok. Whenever possible we accept invitations to attend international conferences and markets. This helps people discover Laos through its textiles and gives the weavers an opportunity to participate in the global artisan movement.
Last November we attended Tinkuy, a Gathering of Weavers in Cusco, Peru. Weavers and textile artists from all over South and Central America where there including weavers from Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Navajo weavers to name a few. Then there were artists from Kutch in India, and our little band of weavers from Laos.
The Conference is organized by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. She is an indigenous Quechua weaver from Chinchero in the Cusco whom we met at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. Nilda and a team of other Quechua weavers from Chinchero established the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco. The Centre she has written two books on Peruvian Weaving, and has co-authored a third book Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.
Thanks to the numerous people who donated to our campaign and purchased dream catchers from our Peru product line to support the trip, ….we managed to send Master Weaver Ms. Noot, Ms. Kham (a Master Indigo Dyer of the Lanten people) and Ms. Thong (a Master Indigo Dyer and Weaver of the Tai Lue people) to this intriguing and stimulating conference.
But why was it so good? Let’s start by looking at this quote by Wade Davis from his book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.
“Cultural survival is not about preservation, sequestering indigenous peoples in enclaves like some sort of zoological specimens. Change itself does not destroy a culture. All societies are constantly evolving. Indeed a culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo.”
Wade Davis is an anthropologist with a passion for cultural diversity. At this conference he gave a lecture called the Geography of Hope, you can watch it here. His lecture like all presentations given at the 3 day conference was ‘live’ translated into Spanish, English and Quechua. (Special live Lao translation given by Jo with prompts from Veo on WhatsApp.) Wade’s inspiring lecture was a celebration of world cultures underpinned by a wise understanding of how important it is to give people a voice.
Another interesting character we met was Daniel Bogre Udell co-founder of Wiki Tongues an organisation that aims to document the 7,000 languages currently being spoken in the world. Daniel heard Wade Davis give a lecture about the loss of cultural diversity and language, and then he decided to create a platform that not only records and catalogues but also gives public space to language diversity. Daniel was in Cusco to record some of the rarely heard languages of the people that were attending the conference. Daniel interviewed Noot, Kham and Thong.
On the last day for the conference it was our turn to present the textiles and cultures of Laos. We decided to use our time on the stage to represent each culture Noot and Kham presented themselves and their work in their native tongue Laotian, BUT then came the rare opportunity to hear the language of Mrs Kham being spoken. Kham is Lanten, a culture that is classified by linguists as a member of the Sino Tibetan language group. Lanten is a sub group of Mien Yao. Kham took to the stage and spoke in Lanten. There are probably only 6-7000 Lanten people in the world so this was indeed a rare opportunity for conference attendees to hear this language being spoken.
The trip was a unique opportunity for the weavers who got to attend and they are very grateful that they were able to make the journey. As Noot explains, “This was my first trip on a plane and first time leaving Laos! It was particularly special for me because I was able to meet with other artisans from around the world, to exchange knowledge, experiences, and cultures. This was a privilege as a weaver from Laos and made me feel special. I was also very proud to present Lao textiles on stage, in front of the entire conference.”
After the conference we took a little time to explore Peru and learn about its culture and people. We went to the Market in Chincero where we got to meet Quechan artists and see their community. We also made the journey to Machu Picchu and learned about the civilizations that built the ancient city centuries ago.
Of course no journey would be complete without tasting the local cuisine. We had guinea pig, alpaca, and llama all cooked in the traditional way. We also drank tea made from cocoa leaves, a specialty of the region.
Part of our mission is to elevate the profile of Lao artisans and its trips like these where Ock Pop Tok weavers are part of a global network of artisans all representing their own unique cultures that accomplish this mission.