The blossoming of Sumba: Sumba tenun route and the road to economic parity, Part I: Building the Rumah Tenun or Textile House

Flying the flag on the 17th of August. Centre: Umbu Ignas and Yori Antar. Second from left Tina Doeana. (photo: IO/Yori Antar)

IO – Yori Antar is known as an archi­tect who specializes in promoting and preserving “adat” buildings (buildings built using the traditional techniques, materials and cultural practices of a locality). He has helped revive, strengthen as well as build tradition­al houses in Flores, West Sumatera and Kalimantan and by doing so he has helped to keep alive the tradition, knowledge and skills needed for build­ing “adat” or “traditional” houses.

In 2008 Yori went on his first trip to Sumba more or less as a domes­tic tourist set on enjoying the scen­ery, traditions and cuisine of Sumba. However, in West Sumba he was un­able to find accommodation and was forced to seek shelter at the local pri­ory where he met the Catholic priest Romo (Father) Robert Ramone of the Congregation of the Most Holy Re­deemer, also known as Redemptorists. They are an Italian order dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Yori found Romo Robert to be a young native of Sumba who loves pho­tography, travelling around Sumba and who is passionate about Sumba culture and traditions.

He admired the post cards that Father Robert had produced from his many photographs of Sumba’s natural beauty as well as its cultural traditions and rituals and it inspired him to explore the rest of Sumba as a domestic tourist.

In 2011 Yori returned after helping to preserve the famous adat houses of Wai Rebo in Flores. This time he no longer came as a domestic tourist but as an Indonesian intent on becoming a part of the Sumba community by helping them preserve their adat and especially their traditional houses. He asked Romo Robert whether he did not want to build an adat house and the pastor told him that that was his dream: to build an adat house to be used as a Cultural House. It would be managed by Romo Robert as a place to preserve, research and discuss Sumba culture. In the end they built a small complex of two Sumba adat houses: one became a museum for Sumba culture and one as a meeting place to discuss Sumba cultural mat­ters. Later a third would be built as a “rumah tenun” or weaving house for outstanding Sumba textiles – but that was later.

Yori Antar with Sumba ikats at his office in Jakarta. (Photo: IO/Tamalia)

For Yori it was important that the community built the houses togeth­er in accordance with their traditions and that the whole process was re­corded through film, photographs and notes and later turned into a book. Now over 170 adat houses have been built on Sumba. Twenty were built with help from Yori’s Rumah Asuh and Friends Circle and one hundred and fifty of them were built with help from the Indonesian Ministry of Ed­ucation and Culture which adopted the Rumah Asuh and Friends Circle program of not bringing in contrac­tors but of allowing the community to build the houses themselves. So many government building programs fail in the cultural domain because when outside contractors build the community does not really consider the buildings as belonging to them for in the adat culture a building is built together by the whole com­munity in the traditional way with their own rituals and techniques. Consequently, the buildings fre­quently remain unused. “When the adat community builds the building themselves, it’s the community that receives the funds and not some outside contractor. This empowers the adat community – and what also occurs is a small regeneration of the adat and the knowledge of skills and rituals connected to building an adat house. Without this the adat and its rituals and skills simply die out – and they are part of Indonesia’s greatest wealth,” explaines Yori. “The problem with government building projects is that they are top down whereas the adat always works bot­tom up.”

Yori was fortunate that during the time he was helping to preserve the adat houses of Wae Rebo in Flores, the Deputy Minister of Education and Culture was Ms Wiendu Nu­ryanti who developed a passion for adat buildings and developed a cen­tral government program that helps finance the building of traditional houses by their own adat commu­nities.

The Rumah Asuh and Friends Circle collects funds from sponsors in Jakarta who are usually individuals and the funds are sent directly in instalments to the adat commu­nity in tandem with each stage of building. Rumah Asuh simply finds the sponsors and tells the sponsors when to send the next tranche. They are in con­stant connection with the adat communities as they build.

The first adat buildings were of course the ones at Romo Robert’s village of Waetabula. At first two adat houses were built with funds from Mrs Lisa Tirto Utomo from the company that produces Aqua. Indo­nesia truly owes a debt to Mrs Utomo who has been a very generous and loyal patroness of adat houses all over Indonesia. After they were fin­ished, at the opening Yori was struck once again by the dramatic colours and designs of Sumba woven tex­tiles. “The people of Sumba are very fashionable. They wear their superb ikat textiles daily – not just at special events and feasts,” exclaimed Yori. “They are quite amazing!”

It was around then that two more of Rumah Asuh and Friends loyal adat house sponsors approached Yori on the subject of Sumba tex­tiles. Rizali (Ippit to his friends) and Tina Doeana were already passion­ate about textiles since the early days of their marriage. “I worked for over 25 years with travel agencies and I kept sending my foreign clients and friends to Eastern Indonesia, to plac­es like Papua, Flores, Sumba.. and I fell in love with their textiles as did my husband. He was at first more enthusiastic about batik but loved woven cloths too. It was our love of Indonesia that led us to explore and collect textiles from all over the coun­try,” confided Tina Doeana.

The couple became truly drawn to Sumba textiles when they attend­ed the building of an adat house in East Sumba in 2013. “And then the next year I helped with the building of another adat house in Sumba,” re­marked Ippit Doeana.

After several journeys to Flores where she was very drawn to the textiles there Tina met a very knowl­edgeable textile merchant from Sum­ba during one of the exhibitions at the Jakarta Convention Centre. His name was Umbu Ignatsius Hapu Karanjawa and he had some very extraordinary textiles from the re­gions of Nusa Tenggara Timur. After speaking to him about textiles Tina asked him why he did not build a textile house where visitors could see the best collections, learn about them and also buy really good qual­ity textiles. This was because during the visit she made with her husband to Sumba they had not found such a place whereas during their visit to Watubelapi in Sikka, Flores they had found such a textile house – which made purchasing textiles so much easier and more interesting.


Sumba ikats hanging in a rumah tenun or textile house. (photo: IO/Yori Antar)

“But that has been my dream right from the beginning!” respond­ed Umbu Ignas as his friends call him, excitedly. Umbu comes from the village of Mauliru in East Sumba. Since childhood he has seen beauti­ful ikats being made and learnt also about them and their meaning for Sumba society. Later after finishing high school he decided that what he wanted was to go to Bali and become a textile merchant. At first, he only sold his textiles at the Pasar Inpres (markets established with govern­ment funds based on Presidential Instruction no 5 of 1981). Slowly his business became more and more successful. Later he went back to Sumba and arranged for the weavers in the villages to weave Sumba ikats in groups and then he brought the textiles to Jakarta where he partic­ipated in exhibitions at the Jakarta Convention Centre. Always at the back of his mind was the dream to create a “rumah tenun” or “weavers house” where the textiles could be woven, displayed, learnt about and sold. At one of the JFCC exhibitions Umbu met Tina Doeana and they dis­cussed his dream.

“Later I went home and told Ippit about Umbu’s dream and I asked him whether he would be willing to help fulfil Umbu’s dream by funding the building of a rumah tenun and he im­mediately answered, ‘Sure’ and asked me to call Umbu right away although he had never met him before.”

Umbu and Ippit met and dis­cussed the project then Ippit and Tina returned to Sumba with a friend who was writing a book about Sumba textiles. They toured Sumba’s weav­ing centres and interviewed weavers recommended by Umbu Ignas. “On that tour of Sumba we really learnt about the ikats: the process of mak­ing them, the philosophy behind them and what they mean to Sumba society. It of course, greatly increased our interest in Sumba.”

The rumah tenun or textile house. (photo: IO/Yori Antar)

They then introduced Umbu and Yori to each other and to Yori’s Ru­mah Asuh and Friends circle and all together they helped the village build the first rumah tenun in Umbu’s vil­lage in Haumara. It was called Ru­mah Tenun Umma Hori and became the first traditional rumah tenun in East Sumba still using traditional dyes. From there with the Rumah Asuh and Friends circle looking for the funding they made a plan to build with the communities more rumah asuh which were to become Sunba textile centres.

Umbu refers to the three of them, Yori Antar, Ippit Doeana dan Umbu Ignasio as the three stones of the fire. When cooking with an earthen­ware pot on an open fire, one needs three stones to keep the pot upright. “That’s us. We are the three stones of the fire!” declared Umbu Ignas with a naughty smile. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part II of the article: