In Focus

Woman's ceremonial skirt (tapis), 1983.67

This opened tubular skirt, with its remarkable embroidered center panel, is a singular piece. Its rich mixture of local and sought-after foreign materials, its palette of golden colors, and its shimmering opulence convey the aesthetics associated with status. Most likely it was initially worn as a wedding skirt by a high-ranking woman, or donned during dances and important ceremonial functions.

It was made in three sections. The outer areas of matching plain weave juxtapose undecorated bands of earthy yellow ocher and colorfast turmeric tones with smaller widths, whose ground colors shift from russet red to steel gray–blue hues. Tacked and sewn on the darker, smaller bands are designs outlined with gold-wrapped threads that are encased in or complemented by sequins, lead-glass fragments, metallic lacework (passementerie), and bits of trade cloth. The arrangement of these carefully choreographed materials creates a visual contrast and a dialogue between the skirt’s undecorated areas, ornamental bands, and silk-embroidered pictorial panel. The center panel’s imagery is enlivened by muted yet vibrant silken tones of aubergine, deep blue, steel gray–blue, cinnamon, and tan, tastefully combined with red and green appliqué trade cloth and sewn bits of mirrored glass set on a plain white weave.

When the skirt is wrapped around the wearer, the center panel is divided into four separate squared tableaux, two in front and two in the rear. Each tableau is centered around a symbolic tree. Anchoring the trees on one pair of matching squares are serpentine dragons (naga) of the underworld. Balanced on their backs are trees filled with avian and simian creatures of the upper world cavorting in its branches. Dominating the tree’s crest is a hornbill. The trees on the other two matching squares depict a solid root structure replete with shoots of vigorous new growth. Placed between their taproots is a lone human figure. An identical pair of figures is perched on the upper boughs of the tree, sharing the space with birds, luxuriant growth, and ripened fruit.

Symbolic trees can be seen on many Lampung textiles. They appear as minor devices on tampan pasisir and as fantastic forms on tampan darat, as upright saplings on the pyro­graphic rattan mat, and as anthropomorphic Indianized structures on the collection’s long ship cloth. Their range of expression is astounding, but also a sad reminder that in the passing of old cus­toms, ancestral images, and shrine houses, far more has been lost of the past than has been retained. There are a number of unique Lampung textiles whose composition hints at a wider repertoire than the surviving corpus of material. In 1972, Mattiebelle Gittinger wrote that there was a serious reluc­tance in Lampung to speak about pre-Islamic customs and their meanings. At that time, the last vestige of the customary uses of treelike structures (kayu ara) still accompanied marriage and cir­cumcision ceremonies in a few areas.

While this skirt may have been worn at such events, its designs hark back to an earlier ethos. Trees set on the backs of underworld creatures and topped by hornbills choreograph the regenerative cycle of life. The human figures below the alternating trees’ tap­roots may well refer to a time long ago when a marriage between elite personages, the building of an important structure, or the setting up of a new marga necessitated human sacrifice (irau). As in other parts of the archipelago, the dispatched were often placed below a newly planted tree or a house post to stabilize an important ceremonial event. As a motif linking the forces of the upper and lower worlds, a symbolic tree powerfully idealizes and enshrines Indonesian notions of fertility, generational continuity, and the blessings of the ancestors. Their archaic rendering on this unique skirt is essential to appreciating the genre, yet compellingly fresh and lively as a work of art for a contemporary audience.

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), 112-113.