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Cloths Woven in Deep Threads of Meaning

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page C02

Headhunting ceased long ago in the wilds of Borneo, but the special cloths that wrapped the trophies make intriguing viewing at the Textile Museum.

They are called pua. The great ones are blood red and fiercely patterned with crocodiles, snakes and suggestions of tiger spirits. In "Textiles for This World and Beyond: Treasures From Insular Southeast Asia," which opened yesterday, they are also behind glass, which is just as well.

"Some are pretty messy," curator Mattiebelle Gittinger says. She explains that the pua were woven for ceremonies in which someone climbed the ladder to a tribal longhouse and delivered a fresh head onto the cloth.

Visitors need not worry: After ritual trappings evolved into museum collectibles, all were cleaned. So despite the origins of some of the exhibits, the point of this awesome show -- mystical inspiration as mighty textiles -- is delightful to behold.

The mansion museum at 2320 S St. NW is hung to capacity with 60 ceremonial fabrics made during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They come from a dozen of the bigger islands now belonging to Indonesia and Malaysia. Most of the pieces have not been seen in this country. Many, including a selection of prized Iban headhunter cloths, were obtained in a spectacular acquisition in 2000, which Gittinger believes ratcheted up the Textile Museum to "best in the country, maybe the world," in Southeast Asian textiles.

A parade of banners, gold-threaded wraps, embroidered skirts and beaded jackets in the exhibition supports that view. Batiks fill two rooms with exquisite florals and delicate butterflies. The wax-and-dye-printed cottons were never more elegant than in the hands of artists on Java. One inspired by Flash Gordon comic books provides an exceptional example of technique as well as pop cultural migration.

But the most unusual exhibits are the ritual textiles made by the Iban and other groups. Many are warp ikats, which require that yarns be painstakingly wrapped and resist-dyed into patterns before weaving. Others involve weft ikat, supplementary weft wrapping or weft patterning, tapestry weave and tie-dyeing. Gittinger offers the textiles as examples of how Austronesian peoples with disparate religious beliefs coped with an unpredictable world. They "endowed textiles with a worth that seems distinct from virtually all other peoples," Gittinger writes in the catalogue. Patterns were designed and cloths unfurled to calm cosmic forces, assure the rice harvest, celebrate life changes, communicate with ancestors or appease the spirits governing sickness and death.

A procession of ceremonial elephants explodes with color on a sacred silk ikat known as a mawa, from the Toraja of Sulawesi. Families have been known to keep mawa for 30 generations to assure well-being. The Toraja also excelled at weaving ikats as shrouds for elaborate funerals. Up to 14 feet long, they are the largest textiles found in Southeast Asia, and a prized addition to the collection.

A warp ikat garment from Sumba bristles with bands of naked men, skulls on trees, deer and fighting cocks. The red color and specific design would have established the wearer as a nobleman.

The Iban who used the mystical pua cloths believed that the command to weave one came in a dream. The weaver would have to remain in contact with the spirits, creating the perception of personal danger. Thus, Gittinger explains, these cloths established the women who made them as prestigious figures in the community. For protection, charms were woven into the fabric and borders were added to contain the energy of a particularly potent motif, such as the kaleidoscopic swirl known as a flying tiger.

"They were extraordinarily complex, and the complexity gives it power," Gittinger says. "It was thought to be so dangerous that a weaver couldn't weave two powerful cloths back to back."

It is to the credit of the Textile Museum that this much can be understood about stripes and swirls of dyed yarn. The museum has been a catalyst for the study of Southeast Asian textiles since 1979, when it staged "Splendid Symbols: Textiles and Tradition in Indonesia." It had only a modest collection at the time, and Gittinger secured loans to put on a world-class show. Scholarly interest ignited. Dealers and museums went on buying binges. The National Gallery of Australia built a serious collection virtually from scratch. But, Gittinger noted, that museum has none of the coveted and very rare Iban textiles. A $315,000 grant from the Christensen Fund of Palo Alto, Calif., made possible the purchase of 29 textiles of the museum's choice. Now, in the curator's view, only the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Britain has a collection to rival that of the Textile Museum.

The exhibition was planned long before the twin tragedies of tsunami and earthquake brought Indonesia into American living rooms. Gittinger believes the 2004 tsunami will have little effect on documenting textile history because Aceh, the province worst hit, was not a weaving center. That was not the case in 1883, when a 120-foot-high tsunami inundated the southern end of Sumatra after the eruption of Krakatau. The region was known for elaborate hangings called palepai. But scholars have been stymied in documenting the evolution of the design, which features ships, umbrellas, shrines, people, elephants, birds and other creatures. The recent devastation in Aceh has given Gittinger a clearer sense of how all evidence was erased.

Indonesia's woven treasures have all but disappeared from the marketplace. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gittinger says, "whole islands were stripped of textiles" as dealers rushed in. Private collectors have rarely resold, making it harder for museums to add to public collections. In the absence of authentic supplies, unscrupulous merchants have passed off new cloth as vintage to unsuspecting shoppers, who turn up at the Textile Museum's monthly appraisal sessions.

Today, weavers in Timor, Flores, Surawak and southern Sumatra are producing quality work with help from economic development groups, she says. The introduction to the catalogue suggests that "much of the power of cloth diminishes" when its creation is simply part of a commercial transaction. Women are weaving to earn a living, rather than to support ritual celebrations.

"It's very difficult to know how much is in the old spirit," Gittinger says. "That I can't judge."

Textiles for This World and Beyond: Treasures From Insular Southeast Asia, through Sept. 18 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S. St. NW. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m. Free. Call 202-667-0441.

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