In Focus

Woman's ceremonial skirt (tapis)

Boats are a ubiquitous and seminal symbol in the textile arts of Lampung. Renderings of fanciful ships were based on a weaver’s skill and the imagination of the men who reportedly drew the storyboards that portrayed vessels. Elements from more than two thousand years of seafaring history appear on Lampung textiles, including the depiction of watercraft that have affinities with Austronesian and Dong Son vessels, early Javanese boats, and two-masted Makassarese proa (pinisi). Added to this group are also design ele­ments derived from various European ships including carracks, galleons, men-of-war, and various ships of the line—commercial East Indiamen, barques, fly-boats, and 19th-century steam-powered paddle wheelers (see 1983.68).

Throughout Indonesia, ancestral boats are associated with stories of origin and ancient burial customs. As Indonesia is the world’s largest island nation, the boat is naturally an iconic artistic symbol often laden with deep meaning. The ships on this skirt’s panels, with their single-canopied superstructures and the figures sporting feathered headdresses, are rooted in antiquity. They share a remarkable similarity to Dong Son–era sea vessels and their crews depicted on bronze ceremonial objects and large kettle drums. When comparing the iconography of ship imagery from South Sumatra with that of Dong Son bronzes, the scholar A. J. Bernet Kempers commented that their representation on Lampung cloths went beyond being solely “ships of the dead” to more broadly encompassing concepts of life’s “totality,” and the bringing together of a sacred whole.[1]

A relatively large number of skirts have survived that depict archaic-looking boats. Yet only a few published examples feature graceful ships with curving bows and sterns displayed on richly dyed, tricolored ikat panels. The ikat on this sarong is exceptional. Its design was probably influenced by those found on Indian export textiles known as patola. At their very best, master Lampung weavers managed to transform these designs into an organic series of sinuous forms. Here a combination of the natural hue of oxi­dized homespun cotton and a brownish-black dye, surrounded by a deep blood-red field tinged with burgundy, is particularly effective. Bands of plain weave, in deep tan to turmeric color, also separate and help to distinctively frame each panel. The richness and depth of color of a textile are important not only to Western connoisseurs but also to every traditional culture in this region and, along with technical execution, are perhaps the most important criteria on which a textile is judged by its local makers.

The weaver’s use of natural cotton shaded by dark bordering in the narrowest panels is reversed in the larger ikat areas, where the darkest lines are in part highlighted by lighter banding. In Indonesia, everything has an opposite value, or a “shadow soul.” However it may have been intended—as a subtle psychological twist or an artistic flourish—such a juxtaposition of color, along with the addition of costly silk threads, mirrors, and gold foil, give this skirt a shimmering radiance that would have made it an object of admiration even from afar. Overall, this mixture of colors sug­gests traditional female qualities, such as purity, earthiness, and fertility. The panels’ subject matter not only speaks to one’s lineage and noble position in society, but also underscores the importance that females play as “vessels” in perpetuating the survival of a clan. Part haute couture, part embodiment of Bernet Kempers’s notions of the “sacred whole”—a state that must be brought to balance during all rites of transition—this superb example of the Lampung weaver’s art combines in equal measure impeccable condition, bold and clear ikat, and finely embroidered panels.

[1] Bernet Kempers 1988, 160-161.

Adapted 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), 110-111.