In Focus

Woman's ceremonial skirt (tapis), 1983.68

Reflecting one’s rank and purpose, the majority of ceremonial skirts of the Abung consist of horizontal stripes of plain weave of varying widths. Couched gold thread is used to create raised designs that range from decorating only a few narrow bands on a skirt to cover­ing nearly its entire surface. The most common compositions are composed of abstract blossoms, fruits, flowers, stars, diamond pat­terns, triangular lozenges, and a variety of other geometric forms. Their sumptuous sheen and raised textures are enhanced by a sub­set of designs within each motif. These are the result of the varying tacking patterns (sasab) used to sew down the thickly wrapped gold thread. For the most part, the designs on these skirts articulate the Abung’s embrace of Islam. Reflecting Islam’s devotion to the word of God, some skirts are embroidered with Arabic phrases or sayings in the Abung language.

In some instances, the antiquated use of upper-world and lower-world animals, birds, buffalo, and dragons is retained in these skirts. Rarer still are those skirts that depict human figures, called tapis raja medali, or “king’s medallion skirts.” These textiles often depict scenes that are reminiscent of the great papadon feasts, at which animal floats or shiplike conveyances carrying honor­ees were pulled by attendants. The rarest and most imaginative gold-couched figurative skirts used the exoticism of alien objects and the powerful engines of what was then cutting-edge technol­ogy to reinterpret and renew time-honored symbols with modern imagery.

One can readily imagine that the resplendent lexicon of imag­ery on this skirt increased its potency and merit. It would have been worn by either a new bride or a matron of standing from a prominent aristocratic family. The dark colors for the warp-faced plain weave background, dominated by navy blue and black panels braced by narrower bands of yellow and dark red, create a dynamic contrast with lustrous gold thread. The blue bands, particularly the more completely rendered lower one, depict two symbolic trees. On its upper branches are birds, and tethered to its trunk are two remarkable creatures. One resembles a traditional dragon or buf­falo, although it has the unusual characteristic of three humps. The other depicts a rider sitting astride a beast that resembles a tiger. The festive atmosphere is enlivened by two gesticulating figures in profile wearing Dutch caps of authority. Seats of honor have been supplanted by a European rocking chair and its straight­back counterpart. The table is set with flowers in a vase along with a pair of drinking cups. A similar scene is repeated with two figures holding their cups and staring directly at the viewer. Behind them are smaller childlike figures. Uncharacteristically, the heads of the elders, the birds, tree roots, and four of the camel-like creatures break the planes of their gold-banded borders.

From the vestigial memory of ancient vessels to ships with many sails, the inspiration for the rendering of symbolic boats reaches its apogee with the paddle wheelers depicted on this skirt. Steam-powered boats could defy the vagaries of the monsoon season and were seen as a great manifestation of European power. Rather than masts that might double as kayu ara or earlier Hindu-inspired trees of good fortune, between each of the ships is an elaborate set of harbor lights. Suggesting a magic talisman, its golden ladder and red lanterns, which hang like enticing fruit, beckon and guide oceangoing vessels. The ships are oriented in opposite directions: one is leaving the harbor presumably laden with valuable cargoes of Sumatran produce; the other is arriving with trade goods that would have furthered the distinction and prosperity of ruling elites.

Since the 1970s, the golden couched skirts of the Abung have become symbols of modern wealth and fashionable dress. Abung skirts have also become popular and synonymous with Lampung culture outside of Sumatra. Opened, stretched, and framed to fully expose their decorative qualities, they are also frequently displayed in office buildings and private collections in Jakarta and abroad. Today, the great ships, the underworld creatures and fantastic ani­mals of the past, and pre-Islamic pictorial imagery in general are no longer part of the Lampung weaver’s repertoire. While the palette of plain weave colors and the quality and content of metallic thread are not the same as in former times, the craft of weaving this type of tapis is alive and well in a culture that still takes pride in their creation.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Woman's ceremonial skirt (tapis)," 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), 114-115.