DMA Insight

The Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles

Among those cultural areas of the world where cloth has had special significance apart from its practical use as clothing, Indonesia is unsurpassed in the integration of form and function, color and texture, and pattern and symbol in textiles which are in themselves objects of prestige and wealth, which are often thought to have protective powers, and which can even be considered sacred.

The group of textiles comprising the Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles were collected by Steven G. Alpert during the period of 1970 to 1983. The eleven islands represented in the collection include the most important textile producing areas of Indonesia with the distinctive exception of Java, where the predominance of batik results in a distinctive yet somewhat less indigenous textile tradition and of which the Museum also has a fine selection. The major style areas of Sumatra, Sumba, Sulawesi, and Borneo are represented in depth and by aesthetically superior examples; these pieces comprise about two-thirds of the collection in number.

From the Lampung region in southern Sumatra come richly textured sarongs which shimmer quite literally with silk, metal-wrapped yarns, and tiny mirror fragments as well as small ceremonial cloths patterned with elaborate, many-creatured ship scenes or with bold and fanciful bird and animal images in the brownish reds and deep blues characteristic of Indonesian textiles in general. Also from the Lampung region are the tampans, which were used to wrap the gifts exchanged as part of the complex system of adat or customary law [1983.75, 1983.71]. Long "ship cloths," or palepai, were displayed during life-crisis ceremonies to define ritual space [1983.79]. A single example from the Batak area of northern Sumatra is severe in appearance beside the Lampung textiles, its deep red borders flanking a dark blue center panel with almost invisible blue and white ikat dashes, symbol of rattan and long life [1983.84]. This textile plays an important role in the traditional Batak wedding, where the father of the bride drapes it about the bride and groom, symbolically tying them together.

The primary technique for patterning textiles throughout Indonesia is by the tying and dyeing of warp or weft yarns before the weaving process begins. The standard term for this in English is ikat, from the stem of the Malay-Indonesian work mengikat, which means to tie or to bind, to wind around. The bold and horizontally oriented forms of the Sumba hinggi or mantle distinguish it from other ikat-patterned cloth in Indonesia. The textile paired with the hinggi in Sumbanese gift exchanges is the lau, the woman's tubular sarong or skirt. Primitive standing figures, skull trees, and geometric motifs appear even more dramatic on the skirts, especially when they are woven in white yarn which contrasts markedly with the dark blue or red of the ground. The five Sumba skirts in the collection are exceptionally fine pieces.

The Toraja of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) produced superb ikat-patterned cloths which were used as shrouds in the areas where they were woven and as clothing or ceremonial hangings by Toraja groups in other areas. The best of these cloths have an inner tension resulting from the interaction of positive and negative design elements; the two shrouds in the collection are such pieces [1983.125 and 1990.203]. Two Toraja textile types are represented in depth by the collection. The sarita, long and narrow, patterned by painting or batik in dark blue or brown, are sacred banners. They may be flown from bamboo poles to indicate a funeral ceremony or they may be used as a turban-like headdress for a shaman or for the tau tau, ancestor figures in wood like the one in the Museum's collection [1983.121; 1983.124].

The Toraja called all their sacred cloths, including the sarita and imported textiles, mawa' (or maa'). Mawa' in a more specific sense refers to the painted and stamped textiles known as shamans' cloths; these are unlike any other Indonesian textile. The paintings are characterized by the rhythmic repetition of a single form in a personification of energy on a rectangular field surrounding a central, usually circular, enclosure. The repeated element is in each case a symbol of actual or ritual wealth among the Toraja—crosses, bees, buffalo, or certain plant forms. Another great strength of this collection is its six mawa'. One in particular is particularly outstanding: the mawa' with fish pond and leafy plants [1983.114]. The imagery of this piece has been interpreted as portraying the cycle or rice, for Toraja, the symbol of life. The many triangular forms evoke a field of rice with the ripe, heavy heads of grain swaying in the wind; the triangular forms also evoke abundant stacks of freshly-cut rice or the conical dish of rice eaten at harvest rituals. At center is a fish pond circled by ducks and a human figure with a fish and fish trap. The totality of the textiles's symbols conveys the essence of Toraja beliefs. Further, the subtle color of this incredible painting provides an unexpected and wonderful surprise.

Complex and interconnected dream-inspired images pattern one of the most ritually significant of all Indonesian textiles, the Iban pua, or ceremonial cloth, of Borneo. These large pieces, characteristically a deep brownish red with ikat figures in tan and blackish blue, may cover a temporary shrine, be placed beneath an offering, be suspended as a roof-like cover over a newborn baby, or serve as a blanket which provides protective powers during illness. The pua in the collection are beautiful examples of the type [see, for example 1983.127]. Other textiles used by the Iban and by other non-Malayan groups of Borneo are represented by pieces with anthropomorphic figures and geometric motifs formed by wrapped supplementary (or extra) wefts, such as headhunters' jackets [1983.134], making the pieces from Sarawak and Kalimantan (the northern and southern regions of Borneo, respectively), an extremely impressive group.

The remaining third of the collection represents seven islands whose styles for the most part are less dramatic and less varied in type and technique. The three pieces from Bali are long and narrow cloths which were probably used as shoulder cloths. The geringsing wayang kebo, patterned with four-point stars surrounded by seated figures and floral elements and produced only in the village of Tenganan in southern Bali, is the only Indonesian ikat in which both warp and weft yarns have been dyed [1983.88]. The name geringsing means "without sickness" and these intensely-dyed cloths are thought to have special powers which enable them to heal and to protect.

A superb example of the more typical Sumbawa sarong is elaborately patterned with metallic yarns on a plaid ground [1983.89]. Floral designs influenced by patola cloth from India give a distinctive charm to the shoulder cloths from Savu and Roti and to those from Flores, where repeated dying produces an unusually rich red-brown color [1983.102]. Also from Flores is a rare type of Ngada sarong said to have been used in rain ceremonies [1983.100]. The blue-black cloth with shadowy ikat figures provides a mysterious setting for the animated creatures embroidered in cut shells and beads. Dark and somber colors, subtle imagery, and the coarser texture indicative of handspun yarn are characteristic of the adat sarongs of Lomblen. Woven as part of a young woman's dowry, unseamed pieces such as the two in this collection were not designed to be worn; they became the property of the husband and, unless he chose to sell them, were buried with him [1983.103, 1983.104].

Adapted from

Carol Robbins, "The Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles," in Selections from the Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles, (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1984), 4-15.

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  • The Portal to Texas History
    View photographs from the 1984 exhibition Selections from the Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles.