In the Presence of National Living Treasure Apuh Ambalang Ausalin | Basilan


It doesn’t happen everyday that I get to wake up in a new and unfamiliar place. Yet here I am stirring into consciousness from a deep slumber in the province of Basilan. A full day has passed since I stepped out of a ferry ship from Zamboanga and shattering my previous misconceptions about this province.

Sophie Gianan, Jomie Naynes, and Levy Amosin watches a Yakan weaver weave her magic
One of Apu Ambalang's Magtetenum (weaver)

For one, we never required any military escorts to follow us around. Gone are the days when you need one. “Contrary to what you may have read in the headlines many years ago, you can safely explore every part of Basilan”, Lamitan City Mayor Rose Furigay told us later in the day.

Sheena Mae Bihag walks through the GAMABA weaving center in Basilan
Entrance to the GAMABA School of Weaving

Indeed, explored safely we did. This day, coupled with the excitement of finally treading on my 74th province of the Philippines, another layer of enthusiasm reigned over me as we were scheduled to be graced by the presence of a Yakan master weaver and Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) or the National Living Treasures awardee Apuh Ambalang Ausalin.

Yakan Traditional Weaving

“Life is a loom, weaving illusion” wrote poet Vachel Lindsay and in Mindanao’s storied sundry of woven heritage, a diverse weaving art scattered across the region abounds with dream-like patterns and fascinating backstories. Anecdotes encompassing historical origins and local legends shaped the roots of the various cloth creations of the Dreamweavers’ T’nalak of South Cotabato, the Langkit of Maranao, the Dagmay of the Mandayas, the Tausugs's Habul Tiyahian, the Inabal of Davao del Sur’s Bagobo-Tagabawa tribe, the Inaul in Maguindanao among others—and in the island of Basilan, the traditional hand loomed tennun of the Yakans.

Armi Valdez and Muffet Sta Maria watches a young Yakan weaver wove her creativity
The GAMABA Weaving Center in Lamitan also functions as a School of Living Tradition

The word "tennun" which in Yakan means "woven cloth", is traditionally used in the creation of a Yakan dress. A testament to the skills of Yakan weavers passed from generation to generation, their creations are often mistakenly described as embroidered by those unaware of the Yakan's weaving process.

Kai Santander poses with a kid yakan girl
They weave anything from table runner to clothing items

Yakan hand-loomed fabrics are known for its use of geometric patterns with matching vibrant and contrasting colors. Similar to other traditional woven creations from Mindanao, each cloth’s design references to a particular cultural and historical narrative.

Sara Abdollahi
(Almost as) smooth as butter

Traditionally, the Yakans uses fibers extracted from the leaves, barks and roots of Abaca, Coconut and Pineapple plants. Afterward, they dye the fibers with different colors to produce intricate designs.

Sandra Santiago looked amazed at the artistry of the Yakan weavers
Artistry in motion

Originally, the Yakans only weaved dresses adorned with various designs that includes the seputangan, which is said to be the most complicated to weave and is usually worn by women around their waist. Other designs include the rainbow-inspired palipattang, the python-stirred buga-sama and the sinalu'an.

Kim Desdichado holds some Yakan woven creations
Colorful Yakan weaving creations

Eventually, the Yakans expanded their indigenous art creations by starting weaving other items such as table runners, wall decor, bags and purses. They also introduced new designs such as the dawen-dawen which was patterned after a vine, the diamond-shaped kabang buddi and a few others inspired by everyday objects.

The over-all weaving process takes between two weeks to a whole month to finish a 2-meter long cloth. Best to remember this so as not to haggle when buying a woven item next time—be it a Yakan, the Inaul, the Inabal or any other hand-loomed cloth.

Meeting Apuh Ambalang

Awarded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts with the National Living Treasure Award in 2016, Apuh Ambalang, as fondly addressed by her weaving students, is a renowned master weaver from the city of Lamitan in Basilan. Known for her mastery of Yakan weaving's two most difficult designs; the sinalu'an and the seputangan, Apuh first learned the craft from her mother who was the original master weaver of Basilan.

Celine Murillo, Gretchen Filart and Levy Amosin meets GAMABA awardee Apuh Ambalang Ausalin
National Living Treasure Apuh Ambalang Ausalin

Our small group of Travel writers, vloggers and members of the Tourism Promotions Board and DOT Region 9 met Apuh Ambalang Ausalin at the GAMABA Weaving Center in Lamitan City. This is where Apuh Ambalang now instills her weaving mastery to a new generation of magtetenun (weavers) in order to keep the Yakan tradition of tennun creation alive.

Muffet Sta Maria poses with a cultural treasure Yakan weaving
Selfie with a cultural treasure

Seated beside her loom attached with an unfinished cloth she is currently working on, Apuh Ambalang welcomes us with a sparkling set of eyes with her face stretching a little caused by a smile covered by the face mask she was wearing.

Stef Juan, Charise Vilchez hangs the photographs of Apuh Ambalang Ausalin
Photographs of Apuh can be seen hanging on the walls of the weaving school

Because of pandemic safety protocols, conversational interaction was kept to a minimum. And as a chorus of hushed admiration filled the small room wowed by the tennun creations displayed around, I picked up a random cloth and silently expressed my amazement at its design.

One of the women weavers who might have noticed my still sense of wonder tells me in Tagalog "That cost 20,000 pesos. That design is unique, and it was woven by Apuh Ambalang's mother"

April Enerio and Millet Miranda poses with Apuh Ambalang Ausalin
Van # 3 represent with Apuh Ambalang Ausalin

I looked at the tennun I was holding and realized even at 20,000 pesos it remains undervalued considering the craftmanship, artistry and traditional methods of weaving performed in making this cloth.

Moha Barakat
Holding a tennum made by the mother of Apuh Ambalang

The Yakan weaving artform has been unappreciated and unknown to most people for a long time. It’s high time we all help invigorate interest in their creations and in doing so, we not only help them sustain their living tradition, we also get to truly honor the legacy of Apuh Ambalang Ausalin.