The Blossoming of Sumba: Sumba tenun route and the road to economic parity. Part II: The Wonder of Sumba Textiles

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Biyan Wanaatmaja designed costumes for modern city life using Sumba ikats. Above: modelling ikats in the rolling Sumba hills. (photo: IO/Yori Antar)

IO – The three stones in the fire which keep a pot upright so that it can cook is how Yori Antar, an architect spe­cializing in preserving “adat” or “tradi­tional” vernacular houses, Umbu Ig­nasius, a Sumba expert in traditional woven textiles from eastern Indonesia and Ippit Doeana, a Minangkabau philanthropist who has fallen in love with Sumba – have been described. Together they spearheaded the effort to create a Sumba “tenun” or weaving route which is to consist of eight tra­ditional houses all built by the tradi­tional or adat community in each of the villages chosen as a centre of weav­ing. These adat houses are to become the “rumah kain” or “textile house” in each of the villages and a route from village to village will become the “Sum­ba tenun route” or “Sumba weaving route”. Each village has its own motifs, techniques and colours and is a cen­tre for its type of Sumba ikat. Anyone travelling the Sumba tenun route and visiting the eight villages will know and understand Sumba ikats.

“Indonesia has a wealth of natu­ral resources, traditions and culture which are priceless!” declared Yori. “We need to understand that behind each bit of culture and every tradition are stories. Behind each cultural prod­uct lies a wealth of philosophies and beliefs and among the greatest of our cultural creations are our hand-made textiles but the waves of globalization that we are experiencing now threat­en to swamp them with machine made textiles.”

One of the jewels in the crown in this wealth of Indonesian traditional textiles is the woven ikat textile tra­dition of Sumba, an island with such great natural beauty that tourists have referred to it as the Magical Is­land. Umbu Ignasius who grew up in a family of Sumba weavers and has been involved with Sumba textiles since childhood, loves his island’s textiles and is passionate that people learn about and understand the wonders of Sumba textiles. “Sumba textiles are all hand-made using natural materials and dyes and there lies a story behind each textile,” explained Umbu Ignas as he is called by those close to him.

“And that is partly why we created the “rumah kain” or “textile houses” so that the textiles may be woven there and displayed there and people who are interested in Sumba ikats may ob­tain information about the motifs, col­ors, techniques, legends and mean­ings of the ikats in each village. It is a place where they can learn about as well as buy good quality Sumba ikats. As collectors my wife and I were really keen that there be a place in Sunda where we could find all that and buy good quality Sumba ikats as we had found in Flores. That was partly what drew us towards creating a rumah kain. At present three ru­mah kain have been built but by the end of the year we hope to have eight rumah kain ready,” continued Ippit.

Red kerbau and tumpal on a hinggi from Haumara. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

As one who who was born into a weaver’s family Umba Ignas saw it from the perspective of the weavers. “The creation of a Sumba textile is connected to our “Creator” and the Sumba adat. They are quite fabulous and there are no two the same. It can take from a few months to a few years to weave one depending on its intri­cacy. Often the creative inspirations come from the weavers dreams never­theless, the women who weave them remain poor. It is the dealers and shops in Bali and Jakarta that make money. I wanted to find a way that the weavers themselves could get to enjoy the enormous fruits of their cre­ation. Then young people would also be proud of their heritage and want to continue it. So, we created the rumah kain and the Sumba tenun route. In this way the weavers get to sell direct­ly to the end customer and enjoy the enormous prices that their ikats fetch in Bali and Jakarta.

For Yori as an architect, the Sumba ikats are amazingly creative and ver­satile, “They can be used in doorways as doors or wall hangings and their motifs can be used as architectur­al decoration.” Nevertheless, it was not only the Sumba woven textiles that moved Yori to do something for Sumba. “On the island is one famous eco-tourism hotel called Nihiwatu. It uses local materials and is the larg­est employer of Sumbanese on the island. It doesn’t only introduce its guests to Sumba’s wonderful natu­ral heritage but also to its culture. It’s a good hotel but at the end of the day the profits of that hotel leave the country and go to foreigners. Why can’t the Sumbanese do that them­selves and have the profits remain in Indonesia for themselves? It was this that spurred me on to try to do some­thing” commented Yori

First, they brought the famous Indonesian designer Biyan Wanaat­maja who frequently holds fashion shows abroad. They asked Biyan to use Sumba textiles to create outfits that could not only be used in mod­ern day city life but that would create a sense of being hip or fashionable. He would then also help promote the use of Sumba textiles globally via his shows abroad. Biyan went about this with great enthusiasm not only cre­ating many truly attractive and chic outfits but also donating the funds for the rumah kain in the village of Atma La Kanatang in East Sumba. Then they began building the rumah kain and the Sumba tenun route. At the same time Yori also began a program to show the villagers how to turn their traditional adat houses into small home stays serving traditional Sumba food and how to use their cultural as­sets to obtain a slice of the pie tourism wealth in an eco and culture friend­ly way. “In Wae rebo on the island of Flores such a community empower­ment program was carried out and now it is visited by 7000 tourists per year and 90% of the tourist revenues go to the villages. That is what we also want for Sumba. Both the Ministries of Tourism and also Education and Culture are involved in this now.”

“Each ikat is different for the ikats in each area of Sumba have their own characteristics and story and I want the world to know about that,” con­fided Umbu Ignas.

The hinggi kombu Papanggang with red water buffalo and white horses from Kambera. The hosemen are Sumba warriors. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

An ikat from the village of Hau­mara displays two blood red buffa­loes known as “Karabua” (same as the Indonesian word “Kerbau”) clash their dark horns in a struggle for leadership which is what the two wa­ter buffaloes represent. In Haumara the people cultivate rice so it is un­derstandable that one of the symbols on their ikats is the water buffalo. “The red water buffaloes have strong and upright bodies and walk togeth­er with white horses. The sound of their hooves vibrates together and makes an impressive sound. It is the sound of leadership. This is how leaders walk,” explained Umbu with a smile pointing at another ikat from Kambera.

Underneath the karabua motif on the first ikat there is a “tumpal” or tri­angle motif at the bottom of the cloth which represents bamboo shoots. The “tumpal” motif is popular not only in Sumba but all over Indonesia. It is one of the motifs that is thought to have originated in Indonesia.

This hinggi from Kaliuda has a garuda motif. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

A culture that is not growing and developing new motifs and trends ad­justing and incorporating the changes in the world around it is a dying cul­ture; a fossil – which is not the case with Sumba ikats. New motifs are also appearing in the Sumba ikats not re­lated to their regional Sumba culture but to their national Indonesian cul­ture as can be seen in the ikat from the village of Kaliuda in East Sumba displaying the state symbol of Indone­sia – the mythical garuda bird.

The “andang” or “tree of skulls” is a motif that appears on some ikat cloths. This is where the skulls of en­emies taken during war, were placed. The trees consist of a pillar with a pole across it and it is offered to the God of War, Maratu. They were the central altar for rituals after head hunting. Horns of buffalo sacrificed after head hunting were also placed here.

The “Ana Tau” is a human figure. When its arms are akimbo it is the figure of an adult referred to as “Tau” and when its arms are raised it is a child or “Ana Tau”. Sometimes the figure is partly human and partly a crocodile or other creature.

When male figure wearing turban with tree like ornamentation emerg­ing from it and woman wearing turtle shell comb. It means that they are dancers at or participating in an im­portant religious funeral ceremony of the maramba or aristocracy.

These figures are still related to the old religion known as Marapu which is the heaven where the ancestors and spirits live. Balance in the world is symbolized by the Great Mother or the moon and the Great Father, the sun. In Sumba around 20 percent of the population still follow the Marapu religion. Most of the other Sumbans are Protestant or Catholic and a few are Muslim. Before the 1960’s the Catholic Church forbade the use of the symbol of “Ana Tau” but “Since Vatican II the Church has changed its position on indigenous cultures,” explained Father Robert Ramone. In Vatican II the Church saw that native cultures also pass on or imbed in the community Biblical values such as kindness, peace, honesty etc and the Church has learned to appreciate and value such cultures. It now supports multiculturism and the preservation of indigenous cultures.” The Church has come to understand how deeply destroying a culture affects the iden­tity and confidence of a community and its people. Yori agrees “Modern religions should not destroy culture but rather help to complete it.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part I of the article: https://observerid.com/the-blossoming-of-sumba-sumba-tenun-route-and-the-road-to-economic-parity-part-i-building-the-rumah-tenun-or-textile-house/