January 22, 2013

Weaving Memories

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Yeats, mesmerized by the cloths of heaven, could have been speaking of the Johnson Museum’s latest exhibition when he famously wrote, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” The dreams of several remarkable women, articulately woven into richly colored threads, have been materialized in Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia. Curated by Roy Hamilton, the Asian and Pacific Collections Curator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, the exhibition was originally displayed at the Fowler in late 2010. Ellen Avril, the Johnson Museum’s Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art, organized the current edition, which continues the Johnson’s celebration of the aesthetic and technical virtuosity of textiles. In 2011, the Johnson presented Indian textiles from the Parpia collection that spanned the last six centuries.

Weavers’ Stories from Island Southeast Asia revisits the notion of the biographical art object with even greater intensity and intimacy. Viewers are spared some mystification about the narratives embodied by the cloths, courtesy of a documentary projected near the gallery entrance. Abrupt pauses aside, the documentary succinctly captures the vitality of textiles that both reflect and participate in the social life of their communities.

The drama of the textiles is undeniable, even at first glance. Expansive and intricate, the cloths are forceful yet sensitive in the way that Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings and Mark Rothko’s color field works can be against the white walls of a quiet gallery. Newman, the abstract expressionist painter notorious for using bands of color to bisect color fields, has explained that the various zones of color “bring life” to each other. Much like Newman’s “zips,” the rows of regally woven animals grazing the textiles enliven the adjacent bands of color. A large bird gracing a vermillion woman’s ceremonial skirt (lau pahudu) is the most complex and striking motif among the featured works of the Sumbanese cousins, Rambu Pakki and Rambu Tokung (Rambu is a title for an aristocratic East Sumbanese woman). The magnificent, angular bird itself is composed almost entirely of diamonds, and the diamond patterns, in blue, white and yellow, define the lau pahudu, lending the cloth an air of solidity and harmony. The cloth’s intense orange hue recalls Rothko’s 1952 painting No. 8, in which a yellow haze rises from a glassy band resting on a gauzy vermillion block.

The textiles are otherworldly; some are the product of dreams. Flores weaver Sisilia Sii, whose designs stand out for their widely spaced motifs, recounts how her late mother appeared in a dream to teach her sacred ikat designs. Other textiles, steeped in mythological significance, are believed to have supernatural powers. Woven in the ikat pattern on a body tension loop, the Tutuala textiles bear motifs derived from cave drawings that the first Tutuala people encountered in the rock shelter of Ilikerekere at the eastern tip of Timor in Southeast Asia.

As the granddaughter of Lai Rusu, the first ruler of the Tutuala, Luisa de Jesus has the privilege of wearing the special ceremonial cloth ifilau or retilau (small snake cloth). The cloth’s design reflects its ritual significance: Red represents the snake’s head, while the swirl patterns come from the snake’s body. It is alleged that the coconut trees of Bacau were destroyed by the ifilau when a Bacau native stole the cloth from de Jesus’ clan and sold it to Australia.

A pair of loom-length cloths takes center stage in the main gallery. Woven by Lang Dulay, an ikat pattern master from Mindanao, Philippines, the cloths cascade from ceiling to floor. Red, gold and black threads tangle and unfurl, approaching the form of diamonds and spiders’ webs in neat columns. While woven cloths are often unsigned, Lang Dulay has worked her name in a willowy fashion into her textile patterns at the request of the Philippine government, which in 1998 awarded Dulay the national prize — called “Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan” — for traditional artists.

Like many of the weavers featured in the Johnson exhibition, Dulay gained fame and fortune through her talents and wit and used her newfound resources for good. As a participating artist at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a veteran of similar events in Manila, Dulay marvels at how travelling has changed her life. Her trip to the United States, for instance, taught her the immense value of education. In the documentary that is shown in the gallery, a visibly moved Dulay says that she would pay any number of water buffaloes to purchase knowledge. At over 80 years of age, the intrepid Dulay has brought her dreams to fruition; her earnings have enabled her to send her grandchildren to school.

It is hard not to feel inspired by Dulay’s almost zealous fearlessness and devotion to tradition, attributes that her counterparts like Luisa de Jesus demonstrate as well. “We are not afraid of anything anymore,” de Jesus declares in the documentary, following the tumultuous years of the 1970s during which her family had to give up their resources to the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Eastern Timor (FRETILIN) rebel forces.

Surveying the incandescent tapestries can, and perhaps should, be a stupefying experience, particularly for viewers only vaguely familiar with the textiles’ histories. Change duels with continuity as mothers pass down the ancient secrets of textile craftsmanship to their daughters amidst rapid modernization; this familiar narrative is made new with each telling, through the words and worlds of each weaver.

The exhibition will be on display at the Johnson Museum until May 5.

Original Author: Daveen Koh