BAP TALKS: INTERVIEW WITH AL VALENCIANO
The Bellas Artes Projects blog will be starting an interview segment where our speakers answer the burning questions that impact contemporary society today.
We were pleased to have Len Cabili and Al Valenciano for a discussion on diverse craftsmanship and techniques in textile. The conversation gave us insights into how they developed their brands.
Al Valenciano is a painter, craftsman, and the founder of Balay ni Atong, an enterprise dedicated to supporting the study and continuation of inabel craftsmanship in Ilocos, Abra, and the Mountain Province. The project was created in response to imported, factory-made textiles entering the market and weavers discontinuing the craft in favor of higher-income jobs. The local artisans weave the fabric in their homes using traditional wooden looms and centuries-old techniques. Balay ni Atong aims to reintroduce inabel to the local market by incorporating the fabric into everyday items.
Throughout the interview, Al Valenciano outlines the role of local initiatives in preserving Filipino traditions, their relationship to communities, and the mass production of textiles. He unmasks the process behind the intricate designs of Balay ni Atong and how he approaches the concept of cultural appropriation. The issue of sustainability is addressed, where he responds to how he ensures the livelihoods of each community are supported.
On one of the Thrones, an installation that complements the High Noon at Cagayan Garden installation by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, I am lucky to have the opportunity to sit next to Al Valenciano, founder of Balay ni Atong. What began as an interview became a homage to local communities.
What is the role of initiatives like yours in preserving and promoting Filipino heritage?
AL : It actually didn’t start out as a business, but a research project in which I researched and documented the different needs (of communities). From research, it evolved from conservation, from conservation it evolved to preservation, and now it’s become a business in order to be sustainable and to make sure the heritage and the practice goes on. So, I wouldn’t say that it’s my role to preserve and promote Filipino heritage because it’s nothing intentional.
How does the brand enrich the lives of tribal communities?
AL : I wouldn’t use the phrase “tribal communities” because what I preserve are weaves from the lowlands. They’re not actually tribes, but communities. I refuse to use the word “tribes”. I’m able to enrich communities by finding a market for them and making sure that everything is priced well and equitably. I make sure that they get paid enough for the crafting to be sustainable.
What is the relationship between the mass production of imported textiles and the tradition of textile weaving?
AL : In my opinion, commercial textiles for me is necessary. We need textiles for clothing, for covering ourselves, for bedding, for everything and all sorts of things.
Handwoven textiles are artisanal. It’s impractical to be weaving things by hand for use in your daily life (for daily wear and tear), if you have convenient machines that can weave beautiful and perfect pieces too. They should be elevated to the level of being artisanal. They should resemble a work of art, something that is done by hand and by human beings. For artisans, it’s part of their expression of who they are as a community.
What is the research process behind your designs?
AL : There’s no need to design because we already have so many patterns. We are overflowing with patterns, it’s a matter of researching, redoing, and tweaking them for this generation. At Balay ni Atong, we tweak them, take certain elements, and put them strategically in the design of the textile so it’s more pleasing to today’s eyes. Back then, it was probably pleasing to them but it’s for our use now. We create designs that would fit an American standard of sizing for your beddings and covers. So, by doing so, we make it usable and more relevant at this point.
Why have you chosen to incorporate more than one weaving style into your work? How did you select these weaves?
AL : It’s more part of the creative process already. It’s not really incorporating different weaving styles, they’ve already existed since day one. We’re just rediscovering these weaves and putting it together. What’s happening now are there are several provinces with different kinds of weaves. Some weaving traditions die in certain provinces, while in other provinces they stay alive. So, what I’m trying to do now is a make a textile that can go through three or four provinces for its finishing for you to understand what it used to be like back then. Because back then, we were very proud to have the best and quality weaves.
I wouldn’t say I selected these weaves. They came, they selected me, and they are part of tradition. I just had to research them and work with what I had.
In recent years, wearing local brands and traditional clothing has become a trend in the Philippines. How do you ensure that the audience sees the meaning behind the brand?
And how do you do deal with the question of cultural appropriation?
AL : Through events like this, educating and talking to them about it. It’s hard to do through internet sales because these are things you cannot explain through that platform. So, it’s more of an educational process. At the study center, what we do is information dissemination of what we have. I believe you cannot appreciate what you do not know and you do not protect what you do not appreciate. In the same way, that you only protect something that you appreciate and then you know. So, it’s chicken and egg.
Do your assignment and research, research, research. Do not use your bahug as a table runner. It’s like putting briefs on your table. It’s as simple as that or using a blanket as a dress. In that case, I would say “would you like a pillow to go with your dress?”
How do you ensure that your pieces are socially sustainable in the sense that they support the livelihoods of indigenous peoples?
AL : That’s not the main concern. It’s unintentional that it’s becoming socially justifiable or socially acceptable. We’re just working with the community, giving them a livelihood, treating them as human beings and not exploiting them like most of the new social entrepreneurs. They say things like “they’re poor”or “they’re kawawa”. They’re not actually poor. Who are you to tell them that they’re poor? I hate it when the news say things like that because they do not do their research. They don’t know what their fabric is so what they do is that they dwell on what they see and from there, conceive of what’s poor and what’s rich. But the truth is, the community is even richer than they are because they have further knowledge of weaving. You have to focus on the product.