In Focus

Skirt (lawo butu), 1990.205

Talented artists of Flores created sculpture, beautiful jewelry and items of personal adornment, and exquisite textiles. These textiles were not, however, universally admired from an early Western point of view. While cloths from Sumba were avidly collected by Dutch colonial officials, missionaries, scholars, and travelers who were impressed by their bold, eye-catching, and colorful imagery, those from Flores went largely unappreciated. Flores cloths are far subtler and more discreet. Bold figural motifs dominate Sumba textiles, while smaller, more abstract and highly stylized figures and patterns define those from Flores. It was not until more recent decades that their exceptional designs and technical virtuosity attracted the attention of the Western world.

Flores textiles were named, ranked, and valued according to the status of their owners, whether nobility, commoners, or slaves. Individual textiles are symbolic of local customs, values, and beliefs (adat). They were not merely garments, but played important roles in ceremonies and rituals. The revered and valued cloths of the nobility were passed down through the generations as family heirlooms and formed a part of clan treasuries. Some possessed spiritual powers that could be harnessed for the welfare of the entire community. Conversely, these sacred and highly charged textiles could also cause harm if not properly handled and respected.

For the Ngadha people of Ngada Regency, the most highly regarded textiles (lawo butu) could be dyed, woven, and worn only by noble women of the highest class (gae meze). Exceptional beadwork patterns and designs, the work of men, were attached to these cloths after the textile had been woven. Lawo butu were commissioned by high-status clan leaders before their death and named after them at death. Lawo butu, as a result, were also referred to as "named skirts" (lawo ngaza). They were created to be clan heirlooms and were worn by women of noble lineage only on the most important ceremonial occasions such as the building of important religious structures. They were also used in connection with the birth of noble children to ceremonially receive them during their introduction to the community. The skirts were secured with a belt, the beaded section facing forward or tied at the shoulder by threads (kodo) woven into the fabric.

The textile ground for this exceptional example consists of ikat-dyed designs enclosed in narrow bands at each end of a large central field of abstract patterns. Tied to the textile are beaded, circular, diamond-shaped designs with strings of beads and shells trailing from them. Also present are five human figures whose arms and legs are similarly delineated by strings of beads and shells terminating in Nautilus-shell chips. Looming over these motifs is a large ship. Their meaning is no longer known, but the human figures likely represent ancestors. The ship is possibly a reference to trading vessels that transported the valuable beads used in the creation of this skirt, as well as other precious cargo that generated the great wealth enjoyed by owners of lawo butu. This mysterious vessel silently sails across mythical seas accompanied by magical designs and animated human figures, a haunting scene that pleases the eye and stimulates the imagination.

Despite careful conservation of these rare and important textiles, many have suffered damage over the decades. For cases in which the integrity of the textile was compromised, beaded designs were repaired or sometimes transferred to new grounds without any loss of prestige or value. Only small numbers of lawo butu were commissioned, and few survived into the 20th century.

Excerpt from

George Ellis, "Skirt (lawo butu), 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), 240-241.