In Focus

Woman's ceremonial skirt (kain inu)

Many of Indonesia’s oldest artistic conventions were perpetuated by peoples living in the interior or more inaccessible areas of an island, as opposed to relatively more accessible coastal areas. This ceremonial heirloom skirt was created by women living in the remote mountainous highlands surrounding Lake Ranau. Reflecting their conservatism, the embroidered panels on the Dallas Museum of Art’s Paminggir sarong celebrate ideas and imagery that are deeply rooted in the region’s remote past. This skirt's creatures are evocative of the curling motifs that can be found on Bronze Age ritual vessels found in nearby Kerinci, southwest Sumatra. Such examples at times display secondary patterning reminiscent of stitched cloth or plaited basketry, creating a linkage beyond the primary design element of the curling motif.

Among the Bronze Age drums found in Indonesia, some appear indigenously made, or created for Indonesian sensibilities, with tympana consisting of a central sunburst-type motif surrounded by organically flowing whorls with raised knoblike eyes. The anthropomorphic creatures on the DMA’s embroidered Lampung skirt with their S-curve bodies and arcing tendrils possess similar qualities. A penchant for the curvilinear was once part of a grand Asian tradition typified by intertwining forms and complex com­positions that spanned a vast area from the far western steppes to ancient China, to the island of Borneo and beyond.

The origin and meaning of the motifs on these sarong is unclear. Scholarly conjecture has ranged from describing the writhing animals as being amoebalike, to the suggestion that these motifs may be related to fantastical creatures found on Paminggir tampan or may have developed from a human figure that became increasingly stylized over time. In modern par­lance, these designs are sometimes referred to as cumi-cumi—squid or cuttlefish—but in actuality this may be a convenient term without supporting fieldwork. The local name for this specific type of textile is kain inu, but the etymology and original meaning of this appellation are both conjectural. Curiously, while the first skirts of this type appear in Dutch museum collections by the early 20th century, there are no known photographs of women wearing sarong with this pattern.

In spite of their age and scarcity, there are actually a fair num­ber of surviving examples of kain inu in Dutch museums, in the National Museum in Jakarta, and in other institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in private collections. The finest skirts combine impeccable condition and precise ikat patterning with very tightly embroidered panels in fine silk floss. Surrounding and energizing this skirt’s well-developed sequence of creatures are repeated flour­ishes. These patterns are reminiscent of a powerful churning wave or the quaking of the earth, created as these animals move through what is perhaps a watery realm or a subterranean world that is pic­tured on a deep indigo blue ground. The most highly developed skirt panels feature a variety of animals, not a repetition of the same creature. Floating within their “stomachs” or interior parts are often smaller motifs that recall either embryonic forms or other miniature creatures, including on very rare occasions a human fig­ure. The combination of this particular sarong’s earthy ikat tones with its depiction of varied underworld creatures suggests the fecundity and potency that rites of passage—particularly marriage— embody. Whatever their symbolic intent, the embroidered panels of a kain inu display some of Indonesia’s most enigmatic and mem­orable designs.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Woman's ceremonial skirt (kain inu)," 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), 108-109.