In Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Major support for Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the R.L. Shep Endowment Fund. Additional support is provided by the Asian Cultural Council, the Fowler Textile Council and NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Republic of the Philippines).
The accompanying programs are made possible through the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund and Manus, the support group for the Fowler Museum.