By Cintra Wilson
Special to The Examiner
A very soothing little gem of an installation is currently hanging at the Asian Art Museum, where curator Natasha Reichle has assembled a delicate and mesmerizing selection of Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine textiles from dozens of communities in 10 of the 17,508 islands in the Southeast Asian archipelago. There is also a section devoted to older photographs of the weavers and their looms.
There is a profound weaving tradition in these islands that intersects with their religious traditions. Specific textiles were viewed as talismans which could attract deities, honor ancestors and/or serve as protection; special textiles would be used to cover pregnant women, some would wrap couples at their wedding, others would be used in funeral ceremonies, to wrap the deceased or cover the coffin.
A ceremonial textile from Bali is called a cepuk, which translates into “to come face-to-face with” — the implication being that one interfaces through the textile directly with the divine; it may be worn during ritual trances, burying placentas or for adolescent tooth-filing ceremonies. (In Bali, the canines were smoothed down because they represent negative, animalistic emotions like anger or jealousy.) On the island of Mindanao, the T’boli people refer to their master textile artisans as “dream-weavers” — it is said that the goddess of the plant fiber known as abaca comes to the weaver in her dreams to inspire her patterns and designs.
Many of the textiles confer noble status; many shown were made by noblewomen of the various communities who traditionally kept the techniques and books necessary to learn the craft for themselves. Weaving skills were directly related both to status and bridal eligibility.
Silk being largely unavailable to the islands (with the exception of Sumatra, where silk from the Aceh province was reported as far back as the 10th century) many family heirlooms of the various communities were silk textiles imported from India (called patola), which inspired a lot of the patterns incorporated into traditional weaving.
Weaving, in these communities, was an extremely painstaking activity; it could take years to produce one object. Three main techniques are on display: songket, a raised pattern created by introducing extra threads (usually metallic) into the weft (a practice that may have been the result of diplomatic ties to the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s), ikat, an incredibly laborious tradition in which the weaver ties and unties specific threads in order to dye them into patterns before they are woven, and batik, in which wax designs are expertly applied with a stylus, and dye is used to create patterns in multiple colors.
The dyes are natural, with reds from the morinda plant, blues from indigo and black from the kinarum plant in the Philippines.
While many of the weavings on display are made of cotton, there are also examples of older, traditional, indigenous fibers such as felted bark cloth and a banana plant fiber known as abaca. In Sulawesi, clothing made of a fragile, paperlike Mulberry bark was worn for special occasions; they were extremely perishable, and may have lasted only a week.
There are some stunning examples of ceremonial cloth, including a long batik piece dated to the late 1600s with masterful scenery, including buildings, gardens and the wings of Garuda (a Hindu deity which is still symbolically important in the islands, despite the fact that Indonesia is now the most populous Muslim country on earth).
Among some of the more traditional wrapped, sarong-like garments, such as tube skirts made by the women of East Sumba (a prevalent gift for ceremonial occasions), there are also jackets with tailoring inspired by Chinese and West Asian communities. One in particular from Palembang, Sumatra made of imported yellow silk (sumptuary laws, according to a placard in the exhibit, forbade the wearing of yellow in Sumatra to anyone who wasn’t of noble birth). Sumatra enjoyed the effects and influences of being located at a crossroads where many cultures traded with both China and the Ottoman Empire.
In the more isolated region of the Sarawak state of Borneo, Iban warriors wore jackets decorated with anthropomorphic forms, in a pattern known as bong midang, which translates to“war boat on a journey.”
A particularly arresting “lower garment” features a fantastical menagerie in batik full of both local animal life (a centipede, a civet, a binturang) and Chinese symbolic creatures; a result of the fact that batik workshops in Java in the early 1900s were run by Indonesians of Chinese heritage. Flowers depicted in such textiles were often taken from Dutch botanical books. In other examples, Islamic imagery such as the eight-pointed star may be seen in shimmering silk and gold-threaded garments created for the sultanates that arose along the Straits of Melaka. Blue and white Batik garments in West Java, which may have been inspired by Chinese ceramics, might be worn for a widow’s three-year period of mourning, or a bride moving out of her father’s house.
Some of the other garments also include such elements as mica and seashells, for extra bling.
Of particular interest is a sheer, detailed blouse made out of pineapple leaves (piña) — a shimmery, translucent chiffon-like material that was the result of Spanish colonizers introducing the pineapple to the Philippines in the 1500s. Filipina embroiderers are using the piña fabric to create exports to this day.
Another arresting piece is a talismanic cloth made with imitations of Arabic writing from Sumatra, where they had no actual knowledge of Arabic writing but created glyphs in order to evoke it. Another nearby piece exhibits actual Arabic writing, including the 99 Names of Allah and other arcane astrological information.
One particular standout piece is a modern wall-hanging, made by Indonesian artist Milla Sungkar between 2006 and 2007, which illustrates the devastating earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the Aceh region in 2004.
Another enjoyable aspect of the show is booklets of samples of all of the fibers in question, so the viewer can get a taste of them through their fingertips.
It’s a small but engaging exhibition, as firmly packed in history and tradition as the threads in the objects themselves.