IO – The best collections of Indonesian textiles are most likely not in Indonesia. They are in the great museums of the Netherlands, America, Germany and of course, Australia. Some of the largest and richest collections of Indonesian textiles are to be found in Australia and now finally an Australian collection of Indonesian textiles has come to Indonesia to be exhibited at the Textile Museum of Jakarta.
Last Wednesday the Jakarta Textile Museum and Sydney’s Mosman Art Gallery, opened an exhibition entitled “Encounters with Bali: A collector’s journey”. Together with the Australian Embassy they launched an exhibition of some of the textiles from the collection of Dr John Yu and Dr George Soutter at the Jakarta Textile Museum. The exhibition was opened by Ferry Farhati Ganis, wife of the Governor of Jakarta and Gary Quinlan, the Australian Ambassador.
Mr Quinlan who was formerly Australian High Commissioner to Singapore gave a charming speech remarking that 10 years ago he opened one of the major exhibitions in Singapore. It was a collection of Indonesian textiles from the collection of the National Gallery in Canberra entitled “From Sari to Sarong”. “I knew nothing about textiles then but the diversity, vibrancy and colour of the Indonesian textiles made me passionate about Indonesian textiles.
Traditionally, in Indonesia textiles were not only worn as clothes but also used in rituals. They were locked away and unlocked for special events. If the colour was still strong it was a good omen for the community – and tonight you will see that all the colours of the textiles are strong. A good omen for the exhibition!”
Dr John Yu and Dr George Soutter’s collection of Indonesian textiles is one of the most significant private collections of Indonesian textiles in Australia. Both men are Australian pediatricians who have been keen collectors of Indonesian textiles and cultural artifacts for more than 30 years. Dr Soutter was unable to attend the launch but Dr Yu spoke both before and during the launch. “You either are a collector or you aren’t. Even when I was a boy I was already collecting postage stamps, toy soldiers….. I bought my first Indonesian textiles over thirty years ago when I was walking down Liverpool Street in Sydney. I saw a beautiful blue shawl that I later discovered was an ikat cloth from the island of Savu.”
With that began a passion for collecting that has lasted more than 30 years. The Savu ikat which first attracted Dr Yu’s attention is indeed an extremely attractive piece both in the intricacy of its design as well as in its pale pink and blue colouring. It is small wonder that he was drawn to it. The Savu ikat is on display at the exhibition and it is one of Dr Yu’s favourite pieces because of the fond memories it brings. As Dr Yu explained, “You always have a special feeling for your first child.”
It took a number of years after Dr Yu bought the blue ikat before he actually visited Indonesia. After that, Dr Yu and Dr Soutter visited Bali every year collecting more textiles and learning more about the different textiles of Indonesia. Dr Yu says that for him Indonesian textiles are at the pinnacle of all textiles. Indian textiles may have more variety of techniques and may be more sophisticated than Indonesian textiles but for Dr Yu the rustic folk style of Indonesian woven textiles strike a deeper note in his heart.
Eventually, the two good doctors began an annual tradition of visiting Bali. There they were able to escape the pressures of work especially at a time when there were still poor telecommunications connections between Australia and Indonesia. For a small period of time no one could disturb them.
Later after he learnt to understand the world of Indonesian textiles Dr Yu wanted others, ordinary people to have the opportunity to learn about Indonesian textiles and to achieve this he felt that it was important that people are exposed to them. His way of accomplishing this was by donating textiles to museums. “So, I gave the Art Gallery of New South Wales 300 textiles from my exhibition and I gave them the best textiles I had because that is the way to get people interested…. The biggest collection of Indonesian textiles is at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. The big collection of Indonesian textiles at the National Gallery is Australia’s way of saying: We think your culture is important. We value your culture and this collection is a sign of our friendship…”
There is a textile in the exhibition textiles not from Indonesia. It is an Indian patolu. The late 19th-early 20th century patolu is on display because in Indonesia through the centuries they were one of the most highly regarded trade textiles from India. The patolu is a double ikat hand spun silk textile which takes months to make and only very important or very wealthy people had them. They were considered sacred and could protect the person wearing them. As patola were considered prestige textiles weavers from different islands imitated the patolu designs in single ikat weaves. In the exhibition are two such ikats. One is the red lawo luka semba or woman’s skirt from Lio, Central Flores with the 8 rayed jilamprang flower at its centre and a row of tumpals or triangles along its side. Another cloth inspired by the patolu is the cepuk ceremonial cloth from Bali. Cepuk means to come face to face with someone, in this case a divine power which gives the cloth a protective power. The rows of white triangles are known as “the teeth of the Barong” which is a protective force. In Bali they are used as offerings or decorations at temple festivals, as shrouds for the dead, as protection against disease or sorcery (the Balinese witch Rangda wears one) and as barriers between the world of the gods and that of humans.
Indonesia however also has its own double ikat textile like the patolu. These are only woven in Tenganan, East Bali and are referred to as gerinsing. It is the only area where double ikats are produced. A very beautiful one is on display in the exhibition. Unlike the patolu the gerinsing is made from hand spun cotton and its colours are restricted to russet red, black and purple.
Dr Yu’s textiles consist of old and new pieces but his taste seems to be drawn to the old textiles more than the new ones. Dr Yu says that he would love to go to Lampung, West Sumatra, Aceh and Palembang as he has very interesting textiles from those places. The old ship cloths from Lampung for example are very important from a cultural perspective as they were used for ceremonies such as tooth filing and hair cutting as well as for weddings and funerals. They depict a ship which brings the soul on its voyage through rites of passage or to another realm at death. He bought his in an auction in Melbourne of the collection of a photographer who lived in Singapore. Dr Yu says that the most expensive pieces in his collection are probably a palepai ship cloth from Lampung and an ikat from Savu with wayang figures on it which was probably made about 120 years ago. The technique used to create this piece was so complicated, it would be extremely difficult to replicate it today. Another very eye catching piece is … from Sumba with the figures of crocodiles and trees hung with skulls from head hunting expeditions.
Dr Yu has said that he would consider donating textiles to an Indonesian museum or gallery provided it has good governance and the textiles are safe and can only be deassigned by approval of a governing body of the museum. He would love to donate a collection of Balinese textiles to a museum in Bali. The collection at the textile exhibition includes lamak temple hangings that praise the rice goddess Ciwi. He also considers them fun to look at. In the exhibition are several lamaks. These are shrine hangings where on the top of the hanging which is lying on the altar, ofdferings are placed whereas the lower decorated portion drapes the shrine. Lamak cloths are mainly made in Jembrana (western Bali) and Buleleng (northern Bali). The designs and techniques are determined by boh the regional style as well as the style of the individual making it. The main paret of the hanging is appliqued while the small bottom panel uses supplementary weft weaving as in a songket.
Ambassador Quinlan also revealed that Indonesian textiles especially batik had influenced Aboriginal and Torres Straits islanders” art. In the exhibition there is a painting which depicts 400 years of contact between them and traders, sailors and people from Makasar. Over the last 20 to 30 years Aboriginal women learnt from Indonesians, mostly in Jogjakarta how to make more vibrant and colourful textiles which in turn influenced Aboriginal art. It is the Aboriginal women who have made Aboriginal art more colourful and vibrant. “John Yu spoke about Indonesia and Australia’s relationship and we are increasingly intimate neighbours and our cultural differences are in fact an asset. We learn from each other.”
Meanwhle, Govenor Anies Baswedan’s wife Ferry Farhati Ganis expressed the opinion that in Indonesia textiles expresses identity and are a journey from generation to generation making textiles a way to understand the Indonesian culture. Dr Yu and Dr Soutter’s enormous love for our textiles has produced a great appreciation for our culture. “It is wonderful,” she said, “that the love of textiles is beyond national boundaries and citizenship.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)