Textiles for This World and Beyond: Treasures from Insular Southeast Asia will be on view at The Textile Museum April 1 – September 18, 2005. The exhibition, which includes more than 60 objects, explores the role that textiles play in Indonesian and Malaysian daily life, and how textiles are used in ceremonies to maintain harmonious relationships with the deceased or the gods. This will be the first exhibition of a group of 19th- to early 20th-century Southeast Asian textiles acquired by The Textile Museum in the last 25 years. Many of the textiles have never been exhibited at The Textile Museum or elsewhere in the United States. The exhibition will also include 30 carved and painted wooden figurines that illustrate early 20th-century Javanese costume.
Long before Islam and Christianity were established in the islands of Southeast Asia, the people who settled the area had developed a philosophy for existence in a highly unpredictable world. Textiles play an important part in many of these beliefs and customs which are followed to this day. Fundamental to these beliefs is the need for balance between the cosmic forces, the ancestors, and the spirits that govern sickness and death. The use of adat, a system of ethnically distinct customs or laws, provides the guidelines to maintain the necessary equilibrium, and textiles are central to the proper functioning of adat. As such, in Southeast Asian cultures, textiles can illustrate membership in a particular ethnic group, class standing, or the transition that takes place at important life ceremonies such as marriage.
The first section of Textiles for This World and Beyond looks at the role of costume within various ethnic groups and the ways in which adat directs their usage. Central to this section is the idea that textiles can convey what their owners cannot. For instance, on the island of Savu each person belongs to a localized male-origin group (udu) and non-localized female-origin group (hubi). The udu presides over the agricultural cycle and public affairs, and the hubi functions in marriage and funerals. People do not talk about their membership in a hubi, but reveal it subtly by wearing or using textile designs belonging to that group. The exhibition includes five Savu skirts that illustrate the different hubi blossom groups.
Color is an important feature of Southeast Asian textiles and can also be used in adat, as in the case of ritual ikat wrappers from the island of Sumba. The wrappers of commoners are typically blue and white, while those of the nobles contain some patterns in red. Historically, the inherent complexity of using red dye invited secrecy and reserved status for its use. The secret of fixing red dye was known only to the noble women, and subsequently its use in costume identified this privileged class.
Textiles enjoy a role in all life ceremonies in insular Southeast Asia, but none more so than at funerals. Ritual textiles establish the scene as that beyond the ordinary and, as gifts, insure the benevolence of the dead in the affairs of the living. Textiles for This World and Beyond looks at textiles used for funeral ceremonies and rites, or for ceremonies to appease the spirit world. These include textiles used as shrouds, cloth hangings, or banners for the elaborate funeral ceremonies and rituals conducted by the Toraja of Sulawesi to maintain relations with the dead. These are some of the most dramatic textiles made in insular Southeast Asia, and a number of fine examples are featured in the exhibition – many patterned in large geometric forms created by warp ikat. The sheer physical dimension of these cloths suggests their societal worth. The investment in materials, time and labor is evidence of their value. The Iban and Ibanic related peoples of Sarawak and West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo make and use large, patterned textile hangings known as pua in planting rituals and in ceremonies for restoring the cosmic balance. When in use, the cloths serve as invitations to the gods to attend ritual feasts. In addition to their symbolic role in rituals, there are mythical associations related to the act of weaving pua.
The weaving of certain patterns is considered inherently dangerous, and as such only mentally and physically mature women undertake to create these patterns. The Iban and Ibanic related peoples also considered many pua designs to be powerful and dangerous, so woven borders were often added to the textiles to “contain” their power. The Textile Museum’s collection of pua includes rare examples dating to the 19th century and is one of the finest in the United States.
Other textiles included in the exhibition illustrate how motifs, material and pattern serve to address adat. The exhibition includes two rare and finely embroidered tapis from South Sumatra. The ship symbolizes transition from one stage of existence to another – a recurring motif in many parts of Southeast Asia. Images of people, elephants, birds, horses and imaginary forms also join with the ship motifs. Such cloths were hung within a house during life transition rites, such as marriage or a boy’s circumcision, and used to call ancestors to witness celebrations.
No other country is as closely aligned to a textile tradition as is Indonesia to the wax-resist patterning technique known as batik. It constitutes the national dress and is deemed worthy as a State gift. Although it has come to stand for a nation, Indonesian batik was originally made only on Java, where certain patterns and colors came to exist within the confines of custom. Some patterns were restricted to members of the Central Javanese court and are rendered in a style and color that links the wearer to courtly relations. Along the north coast of Java, home to Chinese, Indians, Islamic traders and Europeans, as well as Javanese traders from the archipelago, a diverse clientele gave rise to different batik patterns and methods of production. Over time, these diverse patterns and color schemes came to characterize particular ethnic groups, and as such became largely inappropriate for others to wear. The batik textiles featured in Textiles for This World and Beyond exemplify the creativity and precision by which the art form was practiced in the courts and elsewhere.
The batik textiles in the exhibition are accompanied by a display of 30 carved and painted wooden figurines illustrating early 20th-century costumes from Central Java. Although diminutive in size, measuring about eight inches in height, they are rendered with minute attention to detail. The types depicted range from sultans’ guards at the court in Yogyakarta to a peasant farmer and various royal court dancers. Many of the figures wear batik long cloth patterned with a parang rusak (broken knife) motif while others wear head cloths showing semen patterns of the Central Javanese region. Relatively little is known about the origin of the figurines. They were acquired by either Admiral Albert Parker Niblack or his sister, Eliza M. Niblack – both of whom were world travelers and textile collectors. The figurines were ultimately given by a family member to Mrs. Robin Clark of Easton, Maryland, who has kindly made them available for this exhibition.
Many of the textiles featured in Textiles for This World and Beyond were acquired by the Museum in 2000 with a grant from The Christensen Fund in Palo Alto, California. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Mattiebelle Gittinger, The Textile Museum’s Research Associate for Southeast Asian Textiles. A leading scholar in the field of Southeast Asian textiles and culture, Dr. Gittinger has curated numerous exhibitions and published extensively. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated color catalogue. Generous support for the catalogue and exhibition was provided by The Blakemore Foundation, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and Peter Reed.
Wrapper (hinggi kombu)
The Textile Museum 68.1
Acquired by George Hewitt Meyers in 1953