Weavers’ Stories From Island Southeast Asia

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In the Southeast Asian archipelago, making cloth is regarded as the archetypal form of women's work and creativity. Traditionally, women learned the textile arts — typically weaving or making batik — before they were eligible for marriage. Later in life, excelling in making cloth, and especially in mastering complex natural-dye processes, was regarded as the highest measure of a woman's achievement.

In Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia, organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, weavers and batik artists speak for themselves in videos recorded at eight sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and East Timor. What motivates them to create new patterns? How do they adjust to changing social and economic situations? A panoply of human emotions and experience—determination, longing, dream inspiration, theft, war, and more—emerge from the stories of these remarkable women. The videos are accompanied by newly made textiles created by each of the featured weavers and batik makers.

In one video, for example, a weaver in Tutuala, at the far eastern tip of Timor, describes how her ancestors designed a cloth pattern by copying the skin of a snake. She recounts that this "snake cloth," now served by the snake spirit, became an object of such power that when one was stolen during a militia rampage in 1999, snakes destroyed all the coconut trees in Baucau in revenge. Another weaver tells of learning weaving patterns from her deceased mother, an expert weaver, when her mother visits her in dreams.

These seven- to 10-minute oral histories include interesting footage of daily life with extended families and the interplay of generations, detailed looks at weaving and dyeing techniques, and unique celebrations, such as a wedding in a sultan's palace. Textiles created by the featured weavers and batik makers accompany each video.

About the Artists

Map

 

Sisilia Sii
Ndona, Flores, Indonesia

Sisilia Sii grew up learning the art of making ikat textiles at her mother’s side but had no formal education and never learned to read or write. When she married, she chose a husband from a different ethnolinguistic group, so no bridewealth was exchanged; Sii raised her own family in the house she inherited from her mother, essentially creating a matrilineal household. She made cloth for her family’s needs but never sold any until she was widowed at a relatively young age and had to face the challenges of raising her four children on her own. With few other resources available, she seized on weaving as a way of supporting her family. Over the years she has used this income to educate her children, rebuild her home, purchase garden land, and raise her standing in the community.

Sii’s strong relationship with her deceased mother is a focal point of her story, and she insists that she makes cloth exactly the way her mother taught her. Today this upholding of tradition has made her one of the most skilled natural dyers in a community where many have switched to synthetic dyes. It has also made her a guardian of the repertoire of ikat patterns. Barefoot and with her betel box at her side, Sii has even traveled by plane to Jakarta as a representative of her community’s artistic achievements.

 

Luisa de Jesus
Tutuala, Lautém, Timor Leste

Luisa de Jesus is a granddaughter of Lai Rusu, the first local ruler of Tutuala, located at the far eastern tip of the island of Timor. Luisa was raised in Pitileti, a hamlet of traditional houses raised high off the ground. After the Indonesian army occupied East Timor in 1975, the rugged terrain nearby became a stronghold of the rebel group FRETILIN. Pitileti was burned in the ensuing conflict, and the community was resettled by the Indonesian government.

Much of the textile wealth of Pitileti was destroyed in the conflagration, but Louisa saved a few scraps that her grandmother had instructed her to keep as mnemonic devices—preserving the patterns of striping for the main types of cloth and more importantly, as Luisa says, preserving for future generations “our name and the record of all our achievements.”

Until it was engulfed by conflict, East Timor was a neglected backwater where traditional culture endured with relatively little impact from modernization. For this reason, the story that Luisa tells—about the power of a cloth so potent that it could destroy a community’s coconut trees—is fundamentally conservative in its outlook. Rarely today would one find such a story told with as much conviction as it is by this remarkable woman who retains her aristocratic bearing despite the suffering her community has experienced.

 

Rambu Pakki and Rambu Tokung
Pau, Sumba, Indonesia

Rambu is a title for a woman of aristocratic standing in eastern Sumba. Rambu Pakki and Rambu Tokung are cousins, nieces of the late raja (ruler) of the village of Pau. Neither woman has ever married. This in itself is not so uncommon in Sumba, where aristocratic women often had difficulty finding husbands of suitable status, but what is highly unusual is that the two cousins share a home—inherited from Rambu Pakki’s father—without any male relatives on the premises. Bold and quick-humored, the cousins cherish their relative freedom from family constraints and especially the liberty it gives them to pursue their textile arts.

In the attic the women keep their collection of pahudu, devices made of sticks and string, which preserve complex textile patterns. Across the alley behind their house are the smaller dwellings of the “children of the house,” the descendants of a former class of slaves that once attended the Sumbanese aristocracy. Rambu Pakki and Rambu Tokung have seen to it that the women of these households can also weave, but they retain their finest patterns for their own use. Inside the cousins’ home, the primary space is given over to their two deceased fathers, wrapped in multiple layers of handwoven textiles while they await the lavish funeral that is one of the hallmarks of Sumbanese society.

 

Siti Samsiyah
Tanjungbumi, Madura, Indonesia

Still in her thirties, Siti Samsiyah is the moving force behind a batik enterprise on the island of Madura. She employs dozens of women in her community, mostly to do the labor-intensive waxing of the cloth that is the key to the batik process. Her company, called Giat Mandiri (roughly translated as “self-reliance”), operates with almost no infrastructure. The women gather to work simply sitting on the front steps of the house that belongs to Siti Samsiyah’s mother, or they may take their work home with them where they can supervise their children while working.

In a community where the men are away at sea on trading ships for long periods, the women who work for Giat Mandiri say they are simply passing time while earning a little extra income to help with their children’s schooling. Yet Siti Samsiyah manages complex tasks, overseeing the dyeing of the cloth with modern chemical dyes and marketing the finished products at trade fairs as far away as Jakarta. Moreover, the economic role of the batik industry in Tanjungbumi is substantial. Siti Samsiyah is one of the largest employers in her small town, and she has even used her income to purchase a stake in the ships in which the men of the town go to sea.

 

Margareta Taub Kapitan
Insana, West Timor, Indonesia

Margareta Taub Kapitan’s success as the leader of a women’s weaving group in the district of Insana is intimately connected with the sweeping political changes that overtook rural Indonesia during the Suharto era (1967–1998). The Suharto government established a new system, appointing village headmen throughout the country who were ultimately responsible to Jakarta rather than to local traditional rulers. In 1969 Margareta’s husband became the first headman of their village, which automatically made her the leader of the women’s family welfare group. Margareta seized this opportunity to promote weaving as a means of boosting women’s income.

She could not have succeeded in this endeavor without her intelligence and extraordinary force of personality. She stood out so much as a student in the local primary school that she became the first girl to be sent to a distant town for secondary education. When her husband was given an opportunity for training on a distant island, the couple set out for the port of Kupang—a seven-day journey on foot. After raising a family, she invented new styles of weaving and became the first to teach weaving as a part of the family welfare movement. Now in her seventies, Margareta’s charisma is still evident when she leads the women of her group in a spirited dance.

 

Dapong anak Sempurai
Entawau, Sarawak, Malaysia

Anthropologists have described Iban society as egalitarian with status based on achievement rather than birth, and this is still evident when visiting an Iban longhouse today. At Entawau, the central apartments belong to the family of Temenggong Koh, perhaps the most famous Iban leader of the first half of the twentieth century. Dapong anak Sempurai was born at the far end of the longhouse, but married Koh’s grandson and moved to one of the central apartments. There she lived with her husband and her mother-in-law, Iba anak Temenggong Koh, a renowned weaver.

While Iba was steeped in the full historical significance of Iban cloths (especially their association with the taking of enemy heads in warfare), Dapong came of age at a time when remarkable changes were coming to the interior of Sarawak. In order to give her two daughters a better education, Dapong left the longhouse and moved to Kapit, a trading port on the Rejang River. She opened a clothing store but had no time for weaving. When her daughters finished school and her husband died, Dapong became the manager of a canteen in a logging camp, and she also returned to weaving. Today Dapong balances the diverse circumstances of her life, although the cultural complex that once supported weaving has completely altered.

 

Raden Ayu Brongtodiningrat and Wiwin Fitriana
Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

Raden Ayu Brongtodiningrat’s mother, who was renowned for her skill in making batik, was a daughter of Sultan Hamangkubuwono VIII of Yogyakarta. Growing up within the walled palace complex, her daughter learned not only how to wax batik with her mother and aunts but also the poetic meanings of the patterns and the complex rules of etiquette involving the cloth. Now seventy-five, Raden Ayu Brongtodiningrat is still actively involved in the life of the palace. She no longer makes batik herself, but when she needs a special cloth, she will take one that was made by her mother and bring it to her favorite batik maker to have a copy made in the old style.

Raden Ayu Brongtodiningrat’s daughter-in-law, Wiwin Fitriana, grew up as the daughter of a businessman and had little involvement with the etiquette of the palace or, for that matter, with batik at all. She became interested only when she found employment in a batik firm, although she was involved then only in marketing rather than design. Piqued by the artistic challenge, however, she soon founded her own firm, Batik Mataram. Today she makes batik for the fashion market, targeting upper middle-class buyers primarily from Jakarta. Wiwin Fitriana has developed her own specialty, based on the use of subdued colors and the mixing of various traditional patterns in a single piece.

 

Lang Kambáy Dúlay
Tukó Lifá, Lake Sebú, Mindanao, Philippines

Lang Dúlay was already a young mother at the time of the Japanese Occupation during World War II. Through those turbulent years, she wove t’nálak cloth made from a fine variety of abacá that grew in the highlands of Southern Mindanao. A long lifetime of weaving has earned her a reputation as a master in her community. In 1998 she was awarded the Philippine national prize for traditional artists (Gáwad Manlilikhá ng Báyan). Since then, she has traveled many times to Manila and also as far as Washington, D.C., where she was a participating artist at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Although she can neither read nor write, Mrs. Dúlay maintains a bank account into which her lifetime stipend is deposited every month. She has used some of this funding to found and run a school for T’bóli weaving next to her home

Beh (esteemed grandmother) Lang, as she is fondly called, cuts a familiar figure in her community when she takes time out to visit one of her many grandchildren, perched on the back of a taxi-motorcycle with the key to her safe hanging around her neck. She is proudest of her role as grandmother to an entire village, including many youngsters she has put through school. Now in her eighties, she no longer sits at the loom, as that is a task she gives to her senior students, but she has not stopped teaching and she continues to dream—the source of many of the ikat patterns that she still ties and dyes herself.

Opening Program

Night Market

 

To mark the opening of Asia Society’s fall exhibitions that highlight the creative labor of women textile makers, the Texas Center will host a special “night market” on November 7, from 6:00 – 9:00 pm. Influenced by the vibrant energy of street markets found throughout Asia, the family-friendly evening will feature Asian-inspired food, hand-crafted, fair-trade goods, music, and more.

To date, participating food vendors include: Best of Filipiniana, Caphin, Goro & Gun, Greenway Coffee, Flip 'n Patties, It’s a Wrap, Juice It Raw!, Melange Creperie, MuSuBi, and Nougat Desserts & Confections. Urban Harvest Farmers Market vendors include: Big Creek Farms, Orchid Obsession, Pat Greer’s Kitchen, Texas T Kobe, LLC, The Utility Research Garden, and yaya’s RAW Rah, LLC.

Asia Society Night Market co-hosts, The Community Cloth, She Has Hope, and Ten Thousand Villages, will sell hand-crafted, fair-trade goods made by girls and women from Southeast Asia. She Has Hope will feature goods made by women recovering from lives of forced prostitution and human trafficking.

Night Market guests will be entertained by the sounds of renowned Houston DJ and Soular Grooves radio host DJ SUN, while magician David Rangel wows the crowd with his sleight of hand tricks.

Asia Society Members and guests may register for a complimentary Express Pass, valid for priority entry at the opening reception for Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia, located in the Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery.

 

Express Pass Registration

Click here to register for a complimentary Express Pass.

Press Release

Two New Exhibitions at Asia Society Texas Center Highlight Women Textile Makers from Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia Night Market Creates Street Scene of Flavors and Delights for Opening

HOUSTON, TX (September 12, 2013)—Asia Society Texas Center continues its second year of programming with two unique exhibitions highlighting the creative labor of women textile makers from Southeast Asia.

The exhibitions: Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia, organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and Between History and New Horizons: Photographs of Women, Work, and Community in Laos, co-organized by the Texas Center and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, provide a look at the evolution of making textiles with words and photos capturing women’s daily struggles and achievements. The exhibitions run concurrently from November 7, 2013, through February 9, 2014.

Weavers' Stories from Island Southeast Asia, Organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA
In Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia, 10 women from Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia, and the Philippines tell their own stories through stunning cloths and videotaped oral histories. For these women, textile creation is a delicate balance between honoring tradition and adapting their craft for the 21st century.

Weavers’ Stories offers further proof that textile production is very much a contemporary practice,” said Sabrina Lynn Motley, Senior Director of Programs & Exhibitions for Asia Society Texas Center. “We hope that people walk away with a sense of the depth of these women’s inventiveness as well as their varied perspectives on life and the meaning of their creative labor.”

Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia was curated by Roy W. Hamilton, who is the Senior Curator of Asian and Pacific Collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Major support was provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the R.L. Shep Endowment Fund of the Fowler Museum. Additional support was provided by the Asian Cultural Council, the Fowler Museum Textile Council and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Republic of the Philippines.

Between History and New Horizons: Photographs of Women, Work, and Community in Laos, Co-Organized by the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), Luang Prabang
Between History and New Horizons: Photographs of Women, Work, and Community in Laos, depicts moments in the lives of women from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Co-organized by the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang, the exhibition consists of both professional portraits and personal photographs and offers a window into the work and personal lives of rural women. For many, textile making has become a primary generator of household income as well as a way to preserve the cultural history of family and community. Still, this labor is but one aspect of a woman’s workday.

Asia Society Texas Center is proud to partner with the only independent non-profit museum in Laos dedicated to the country’s ethnic peoples and their traditional arts. According TAEC’s co-founder Tara Gujadhur, “In addition to anchor photographs from TAEC’s own archives, the exhibition contains images produced by participants in Stitching our Stories. A PhotoForward project, its goal is to equip minority women with tools to document their own lives.” Gujadhur continues, “Laos is teeming with cultural diversity. While there is a rich history in textile production, it is rapidly and radically being altered by modern life. The exhibition reveals that the very meaning of labor, not to mention women’s role in their families and communities, is in flux.”

Opening Program: Asia Society Night Market
To mark the opening of the exhibitions, Asia Society Texas Center will host a special night market inspired by the vibrant energy of a typical Asian street market. Asia Society Night Market will take place on November 7 from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm and will feature foods, crafts, and more. To date, participating food vendors include: Best of Filipiniana, Goro & Gun, Greenway Coffee, and Melange Creperie. In addition to fair-trade items from Ten Thousand Villages and She Has Hope Craft Shop will sell hand-crafted goods by girls and women recovering from lives of forced prostitution and human trafficking.

The Partners

Asia Society Texas Center
Asia Society Texas Center is part of a leading global educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Across the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, Asia Society Texas Center provides insight, generates ideas, and promotes collaboration to connect Americans and Asians for a shared future. Website: AsiaSociety.org/Texas.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA
Part of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, the Fowler Museum at UCLA explores global arts and cultures with an emphasis on works from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas—past and present. The Fowler enhances understanding and appreciation of the diverse peoples, cultures, and religions of the world through dynamic exhibitions, publications, and public programs, informed by interdisciplinary approaches and the perspectives of the cultures represented. Also featured is the work of international contemporary artists presented within the complex frameworks of politics, culture and social action. The Fowler provides exciting, informative, and thought-provoking exhibitions and events for the UCLA community and the people of greater Los Angeles and beyond. Website: Fowler.UCLA.edu.

The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, Laos
Founded in 2006, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is a museum in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. The Centre’s mission is to promote pride and appreciation for the cultures and knowledge of Laos’ diverse peoples, support ethnic communities to safeguard their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and promote their sustainable livelihood development. It is the only independent non-profit museum and resource centre in the country dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s many and diverse ethnic groups. Website: TAECLaos.org.

PhotoForward
PhotoForward arts and media programs were launched in 2005 to empower artists of all ages to share their own stories through photography, visual arts, community art, and digital media. PhotoForward works with partner organizations in New York, Cambodia, and Laos to develop sustainable programs that engage local populations in documenting their lives and celebrating their community’s history, while defining its future. Website: PhotoForward.org/Community-Researchers-Laos.html.

More information about the exhibitions, opening events, and ongoing programs can be found at AsiaSociety.org/Texas.

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Related Exhibition

Between History and New Horizons

Between History and New Horizons: Photographs of Women, Work, and Community from Laos
Co-organized with the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, Laos, and with the cooperation of PhotoForward
On view November 7, 2013 – February 9, 2014

Credits

Organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia was curated by Roy W. Hamilton, Senior Curator of Asian and Pacific Collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Major support was provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the R.L. Shep Endowment Fund of the Fowler Museum. Additional support was provided by the Asian Cultural Council, the Fowler Museum Textile Council and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Republic of the Philippines.

Exhibitions at Asia Society Texas Center are supported by United Airlines, the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, and generous contributions from the Friends of Exhibitions group. Lead sponsors include Chinhui Juhn & Eddie Allen, Anne & Albert Chao, and Nancy C. Allen. Presenting sponsors include Glen Gondo/Sushic LLC and Dorothy Carsey Sumner. Underwriters include Karen and John Bradshaw Sr., Jereann Chaney, Dillon Kyle Architecture, and Judy & Scott Nyquist. Contributors include Jo & Jim Furr, Teri & Jeff Lee, Judith and Bruce E. Campbell Jr., Maggie and Bruce E. Campbell III, Monjula and Ravi S. Chidambaram, Judy and Robert Gerry, Bebe Woolley and Dan Gorski, Dr. Yang O. Hue, Sissy and Denny Kempner, Sushila and Dr. Ninan Mathew, Chong-Ok Matthews, Wade Mayberry, Tae and Young Park, Jae Y. Ro, Lillie Robertson, Louis H. Skidmore, Jr., with additional support from Susie and Sanford Criner, Lily and Charles Foster, Clare Attwell Glassell, Y. Ping Sun.

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