In Focus

Man's shoulder or hip cloth (hinggi)

Traditionally, Sumbanese men's ikat cloths, called hinggi, could be woven only by upper-class women. Women planted and harvested the cotton, carded and spun it, prepared the dyes, applied the motifs, wove, and completed the fabrication of these remarkable textiles. Great care was taken with the finishing of a superior piece, including precise joining stitches and the addition of corded fringes and terminal borders (kabakil). The finest examples also include an added yellow/tan color that was daubed on the textile after weaving was completed. The yellow stain is perhaps Sumba's answer to the gilding of cloth that one finds in Bali, Java, and Sumatra.

The two primary colors of a hinggi are blue (wora) and a rust-colored red. The most highly prized color, this rusty shade of red, is obtained from the roots of the kombu tree, while blue can be extracted from both wild and cultivated indigo. The intensity of these colors is determined by the number of times the thread is dyed before weaving. The application of one color over another results in still greater variation. Yellowish tan daubed over blue, for instance, results in green.

The range and variety of motifs depicted on hinggi are exceptional. In addition to their decorative quality, hinggi reflect the social and religious life of the community, while validating and confirming royal wealth, privilege, and power. Indigenous motifs include ancestor figures, jewelry, horses, stags, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, cockatoos, lobsters, and shrimp. Various combinations of this imagery can also appear on other royal prestige goods. Foreign symbols of authority and power—such as elephants, Dutch heraldic figures taken from coinage, and dragons copied from highly valued Chinese jars—are also frequently incorporated.

The colors of this hinggi are darker, and its design far bolder and less dense than in its companion piece (1983.81). Both are examples of 19th-century hinggi created by exceptionally skilled weavers for local use rather than for trade. The primary motif of this striking piece is the skull-tree (andung). In addition, male ancestor figures in the orant position, along with anthropomorphic figures and birds, occupy the large bands at each extremity. Smaller bands that frame these end registers depict what seem to be dragons.

Headhunting was a widespread practice in Indonesia—including in Sumba—before its suppression in by colonial officials. The taking of heads signified male bravery and guaranteed good fortune as well as fertility for both land and people. Skull-trees were erected in the center of the village, the dead trees stripped of leaves and bark and enclosed in a base of stones. The skills and mandibles of defeated warriors hung from them, symbolizing the future well-being of the community. Hinggi that depict skull-trees became popular with tourists who were attracted to the more sensational and exotic aspects of Sumbanese culture. Although the motif remains popular, current commercial examples are of highly inferior quality.

Excerpt from

George Ellis, "Man's shoulder or hip cloth (hinggi)" in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 228-229.