Textiles Close Up: Indonesia at the Yale University Art Gallery

“It is always women who weave in Southeast Asia.” Dr. Barnes explained that because women are associated with fertility, by extension so are their textiles.

At weddings, the gift from the mother’s side will be textiles, and the man’s family will present metal objects or ivory. Similarly, textiles are also the first gifts for a newborn child and at funerals textiles are given as well. This was an important theme that ran through the well organized and amazing Study Tour, Textiles Close Up: Indonesia at the Yale University Art Gallery.

We were shown one of the earliest textiles in the collection, which is radiocarbon dated from the 16th century and in very good condition despite its age. From Sulawesi and remarkable for its virtuosity in ikat technique, this textile was woven with a continuous warp creating a tubular skirt. Instead of the textile being taken off the loom, cut, and sewn, the final weft was inserted by hand for finishing without a seam, a technique no longer practiced in Indonesia. The Toraja from Sulawesi stored their textiles using sandalwood and various leaves and roots, which repelled insects and led to their good preservation.

Indonesia, Sulawesi, 16th century, women’s skirt, warp ikat; cotton
Yale University Art Gallery

Indian double ikat silks, or patolas, which were made in Gujarat, India, were influential on the textiles of Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese arrived in Indonesia after 1500, they realized that in order to gain access to the Indonesian spice trade, they had to barter Indian patolas. They found that they had already been exchanged and treasured in Southeast Asia by that time. In Sumba, located a few islands to the east of Bali, textiles typically show stylized figures along with horses, fish, and shrimp. Some however, display the Indian influence.

Indonesia, Sumba, ikat, influenced by Indian patolas
Indonesia, Lembata, backstrap loom
Yale University Art Gallery

One of my favorite textiles was an Iban ikat from Borneo using an intricate, almost dizzying, tiger (remaung) pattern. The piece is not a literal representation of a tiger but captures the spirituality of the animal. It has strength and grace, with the essence of danger.

Borneo, Sarawak, Iban, late 19th century, warp ikat; cotton
ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu)
Yale University Art Gallery

Within the first hour of the symposium the amount of information we received from the incredible Dr. Ruth Barnes was amazing. We discussed at least 12 textiles, looked at the Javanese gold display (arranged by Dr. Barnes in terms of their functional use) and touched on some of the wooden objects – pointed out to us were the Iban carved wooden blocks, which were used for stamping tattoo patterns.

A delicious lunch followed at the Union League Café (they had individual French coffee presses filled to the brim!), and we were able to visit with each other.

We then traveled to the west campus, where we were given a tour and shown, among other items, a book on the Javanese batik process; a Toraja bark cloth, beaten very fine and painted; a women’s ceremonial skirt from South Sumatra with satin stitch embroidery; a vest from Sumatra; a batik with gold painting (kain prada); and a fabulous batik from Java – truly an example of a wax-resist textile at its height of refinement.

Indonesia, Java, 19th century, wax-resist batik
Yale University Art Galler

A reception at Mona Berman’s Fine Arts gallery was the icing on the cake. Mona wined and dined us and we were able to see her collection of world textiles. A fitting end to a dream day in the life of the textile obsessed!

Mona Berman Fine Arts
78 Lyon Street
New Haven, CT 06511-4927 USA
F 203-787-6855

Author: Renee Magnanti received her BA in English and BFA in Fine Arts from SUNY at Buffalo and MFA in Fine Arts from Tulane University. She is an artist living in New York City, where she exhibits her work, as well as throughout the US, Europe and Asia.  Known for her 3-D encaustic paintings and prints, her current work is inspired by world textiles and often incorporates text into the image.