Cultures & Traditions

Women's Art Making in Timorese Cultures

Textile production on Timor—along with pottery and basketry (often combined with beading)—was preeminently a female occu­pation. From an early age, girls would start weaving textiles that were used for all sorts of purposes. The principal textiles were the woman’s tubular skirt (best known by its Indonesian name sarong ), and the man’s rectangular hip and shoulder cloth (selimut in Indonesian). Special headwraps were produced for headhunt­ers (pilu saluf), and certain fabrics were used, for example, in men’s belts and shoulder bags and in the horse cloths favored by the nobility.

Women grew the required cotton themselves, and the home­spun yarns were subsequently dyed using pigments derived from local plants. At the end of the 19th century, weavers also started using machine-spun yarns that became available through trade. As a result, it became possible to add extra color variations to the fabrics, which was done particularly in the lateral stripes. The often intricately patterned designs were worked in many techniques: warp ikat, warp-faced alternating float weave, two types of supplementary weft, tapestry weave, twining, and warp stripe patterning. These techniques were not used in all princedoms however; in some regions, certain techniques were even banned. The leading decorative techniques were warp ikat and warp ikat pat­terning, for which a backstrap tension loom was usually employed. Warp ikat involves resist-dyeing decorative patterns into threads before they are woven.

To the Timorese, the local sarong and selimut clearly indicated identity, revealing an individual’s area of birth (princedom) and tra­ditional allegiance (clan). The use of colors or color combinations, specific motifs, and pattern arrangements specified precisely to which political community someone belonged. Furthermore, they revealed a person’s social status, whether noble or commoner. The exact meanings of certain frequently appearing figures and motifs are a source of much speculation, but unfortunately little is known for sure. It is commonly assumed, for instance, that zoomorphic motifs refer to the totems of families and consequently played a protective role and warded off evil. The bird motif, which appears often, is also associated with local ideas about death.

Another art form associated with animals is the Atoni headwrap, or pilu saluf. These pieces—insignia for men who had sev­ered a head—consist of a rectangular body with many “ribbons” on one side that commonly have (often white) beads decorating their ends. The name of these garments appears to reflect this design: pilu refers to headcloth, and saluf means “to tear into rags.” These “rags” probably represented the tails of cats (meo) and dogs (asu), both animals to which a headhunter was compared in ceremonial language.

After the Dutch eradicated the practice of headhunting at the beginning of the 20th century, many pilu saluf became sacred heirlooms. To this day, these remarkable garments are meticulously preserved as eternal mementos of brave ancestors, and they are brought out only for staged performances. Similarly, ancient sarong and selimut that have been produced in the tradi­tional way have now also become family heirlooms. For the past fifty years, nearly all weaving has been done with industrially spun yarns, and synthetic dyes are used on a large scale. Recent decorative patterns show a fascinating mix of ancestral forms and modern influences. Although many of the ancient clan motifs have persisted, now they are portrayed side by side with motifs derived from Christianity.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Traditional Art in Timorese Princedoms," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 245-251.