Abra in Colours: The Tingguians, Bamboos, and the Art of Dyeing

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Abra is a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) that is notorious for its records of election-related violence more than any other thing. Development is slow in this province and not much is really happening inside. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this place is not one of those that would be in your priority of places to see in the Philippines: to mention that you are going to Abra to other Filipinos will surely invite some stare of judgment and even dissent.

What led us to Abra in July 2013 is to feature its “natural dye makers” — the indigenous highland people called Tingguians — for What I See travel photography show.

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The view of Bangued, the capital town of Abra, from the top of the Cassamata Hill National Park.

Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco "Paco" Guerrero scouting the surroundings of the long Calaba Bridge for the best capture there is to find.

Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco “Paco” Guerrero, the host of What I See, scouting the surroundings of the Calaba Bridge and the river basin for the best capture there is to find.

The Bamboo Split Weavers

The Tingguians, also called Isneg, are engaged in various crafts. The most important of which is bamboo crafts production. It is for this reason that Abra is aggressively positioning itself as the “Bamboo Capital of the Philippines”.

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The Natural Dye Makers

In documenting the production of natural dyes from plants, the team went to the Tingguian village of Namarabar in Penarubia, a town an hour away from the capital Bangued.

Norma Agaid, a Tingguian elder and the sister of the “Father of Philippine Natural Dyes” Luis Agaid, explained which plants yield what kinds of colours: mahogany for red, jackfruit and ginger for yellow, the malatayum plant for indigo, the narra tree for brown, among others.

Of all the mountain tribes in the Philippines, we have the most number of colours. We only get these colours from sources present around us“, she proudly shared.

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A local icon: Norma Agaid sporting an authentic Tingguian attire. Notice the “frog” pattern in her skirt. Traditionally, this is worn during the rainy months in the belief that this will please the gods and their ancestors in giving them the best out of the planting season.

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the malatayum plant produces the colour indigo that will later be used in dyeing textiles with various shades of blue.

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Brewing narra barks in this earthenware produces the colour brown sap. The narra is the national tree of the Philippines.

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The Tingguian women — in their native backstrap-woven clothes — preparing to serenade the What I See team with a traditional welcome song that they composed only a few minutes before we arrived.

The charm of Abra stems from the fact that it is not at all in the tourism map. Indeed, it is highly ignored by outsiders. Hence, our experience in this rustic province can only be as natural and authentic as we can get. Indigenous dyeing is obviously a dying art. It is important to shed light into it as it is a part of the bigger “Filipino identity and local artistry” that most of us Filipinos tend to take for granted.

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Tingguian designs are largely linear and simple, but are assigned with many meanings. Some textiles are reserved for use only during special occasions such as birth-giving, nuptials, and harvesting. The vividness of colours in this shroud only suggests the level of mastery they have in controlling the strength of the dyes they make from readily available sources around them.

Paco Guerrero, whose background is no less than Anthropology, could not have described the Tingguians any better, “In the forest, they do not only see trees and plants. They see colours.”

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The Philippines through the Hands of Ten Filipinos

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A Tingguian bamboo split weaver in the province of Abra in the Cordillera Administrative Region. The Tingguian people, also known as Isneg, are a lowland indigenous people group that traces their ancestry to the much older Itneg group of the highlands.

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Hand of a Tagbanua bird’s nest (an expensive ingredient for an exotic soup) hunter holding a locally-prepared torch used to lighten up the deepest parts of the caves in Coron Island of Palawan. Gathering bird’s nest is known to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Tagbanua people are sea-dwellers and are some of the first to occupy the archipelago.

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A traditional healer performing “bulo-bulo” (a form of cleansing done by blowing a water-filled glass containing an amulet) to a curious patient in Siquijor. Sometimes, just right after the ritual, foreign objects — such as sand, pebbles, and even worms — emerge inside the glass! This small island is notorious for its history of sorcery, witchcraft and the dark arts.

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A Taubuid Mangyan showing a pipe he made using a bamboo twig and clay with some tribal etchings. These people inhabit the central parts of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, and are some of the oldest known groups in the Philippines. They have an ancient writing system identified as a paleograph and is registered in the Memory of the World list.

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A local potter in the “Pagburnayan” village in the historic town of Vigan, a World Heritage Site. Pottery was introduced by Chinese merchant-craftsmen who have been trading with earlier Filipinos since time immemorial. The Pagburnayan village is home to one of the longest extant dragon kilns outside mainland China.

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An Ifugao preparing a “moma”, a bettelnut chew in Banaue. The Ifugao are the same people who constructed the world-famous rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (a World Heritage Site), and are, likewise, the guardians of the “Hudhud” chants (a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity).

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An Iraya, a lowland Mangyan sub-group, making a broom out of tiger grasses in Tamisan, a village on the foot of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park. Even with extensive and heavy use, these local brooms are known to last for years.

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Hands of a Maranao woman inlaying mother of pearls to a wooden chest. The Maranao people of Tugaya beside Lake Lanao are some of the most artistic groups in the Philippines. Nearly all households in town are engaged in various traditional ‘okir’-based crafts such as wood carving, weaving, brass-ware making, among others.

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An Ilocano showing an heirloom “abel” textile from Paoay in Ilocos Norte. The half century-old textile featured in this photo follows the “sinukitan” technique. Abel are loom-woven textiles that are known for their versatility, sturdiness and creative patterns, as well as the critical role they played during the galleon trade years with Mexico and Spain.

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A Tagalog tourist holding a newly hatched Hawksbill turtle in Puerto Galera, a declared World Biosphere Reserve. The Philippines is recognized by the scientific community as the center of the famed Coral Triangle, a region home to the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.

A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.

Guling-guling 2014

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In the Philippines, it is only my hometown Paoay that celebrates Fat Tuesday, the last day of merry-making before entering the Lenten season. Guling-guling, a four-century old tradition, involves street dancing, cooking dodol (a Malay deli), and smearing the sign of the cross (using ash or rice flour mixtures) on the foreheads of devote Christians – which is interesting as, in this town, this religious practice is done prior to Ash Wednesday. Modern-day celebrations now culminate in a dance showdown in front of the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin church, the crowning glory of the earthquake baroque architecture.

The dancers sport the loom-woven textile called abel Iloco, one of the products that my humble town is known for.

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