Image: Woman's ceremonial skirt (tapis) (detail). 1825-1875. Cotton and silk with metal or metal-wrapped threads.
Lying along the trade routes between India and China, island Southeast Asia has been a crossroads for merchants, pilgrims, and travelers from many parts of the world.
Weaving Stories, a new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, considers how fabrics produced primarily by women, such as the ikats and batiks that have inspired global fashion for centuries, are woven not only into the daily lives but the cultural foundations of these communities. At the same time, the exhibition shows how hand-made and naturally dyed textiles provide a platform for self-expression and social meaning for women, both as artistic innovators and as vital transmitters of scientific knowledge.
A remarkable diversity of style, technique, and ornamentation can be found across Southeast Asian textiles and the exhibition traces the development of clothing across this storied region. With the sea connecting people as much as it divided them, local sailors crisscrossed archipelagos bringing textiles with them. Those connections, as well as the introduction of Islam and Christianity, changed modes of dress in many ways; tailored jackets, pants, and Western clothing joined and sometimes supplanted older traditions of draped apparel. In most parts of the region today, mass produced textiles are worn in everyday life, but handmade textiles continue to be used in weddings, funerals, and other milestone or ceremonial events.
Image: Woman’s ceremonial skirt (tapis), 1825–1875. Indonesia; Lampung, Southern Sumatra. Cotton and silk with metal or metal-wrapped threads. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
“Weaving is one of the oldest and most intimate forms of art,” says exhibition curator Natasha Reichle, Associate Curator of Southeast Asian Art. “From birth to death, we are swaddled, wrapped, or shrouded in cloth. It protects and adorns our homes, our sacred spaces, and our bodies. Weaving Stories is a chance to look closely at why different kinds of cloth and clothing are valued, and by whom, and how women’s contributions to the arts of Southeast Asia are ripe for reevaluation—especially in light of the influence textile arts have on contemporary artistic practices around the world right now.”
Weaving Stories goes beyond the aesthetics and symbolism of textiles to tell stories about how cloth continues to be made today. Visitors will be able to touch samples of fabrics, including handspun cotton and silk, piña (made from pineapple leaves), and abaca (made from banana plants), to understand how the garments on view felt to the wearer. Videos demonstrating traditional processes reveal how women transformed these fibers into finished textiles.
Image: Woman’s blouse (camisa), 1850–1950. Philippines; Luzon Island. Piña (pineapple) and cotton. Photograph © Asian Art Museum
Other multimedia displays allow visitors to examine a selection of textiles at a magnification station. With a macro lens, individual strands of thread are visible as well as the techniques of dying them with ikat or wrapping them with thin strips of paper covered with gold or silver.
The ability to dye was as valued as woman’s ability to weave. Blue derived from the leaf of the indigo plant and red from the root of the morinda plant provide the basis of the color palette for many traditional textiles. The Asian Art Museum has some of the earliest known examples of indigo cloths decorated with batik, as well as bold ceremonial textiles foregrounding red. Masterpieces like those on display would have needed dozens of immersions in a dye bath to achieve these saturated colors, and their enduring brilliance invites visitors to appreciate them as pure works of art and to consider how the complexity of their production increased the status of both their maker and their wearer.
Image: Shoulder or waist cloth (ija sawa) (detail), approx. 1850–1900. Indonesia; Aceh province, Sumatra. Silk with gold-wrapped thread. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Textiles were used by people from every faith tradition across the region in their spiritual lives, often as talismans. A striking example is a rare silk ritual cloth (cepuk) from Bali; spiky white triangles along its borders symbolize the teeth of the guardian deity Barong, revealing the cepuk’s protective function. A deep red cloth ornamented with symbols of longevity and good fortune was used by Indonesians of Chinese heritage to drape a home altar to their ancestors. Among the Iban in Borneo, textiles ornamented with intricate ikat patterns were made to line the walls of longhouses and invited the support of gods and ancestors.
Image: An Iban woman spinning, Kalimantan, 1900–1940. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. Coll. No. TM-60006393
“With the ongoing pandemic, we see how our reliance on textiles to relate to the world around us has shifted—with masks, just a tiny piece of cloth, protecting us and signaling our respect for the well-being of others. I hope our audiences all come away with a similarly expanded appreciation for these incredible woven artworks,” says Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director of the Asian Art Museum. “This is a vibrant encounter with some of the world’s most inspirational fabrics and truly lets visitors connect the art of the past to their lives today.”