Textile Museum to Display Batik Cloths From Obama's Mother's Collection

(Ann Dunham Collection - Ann Dunham Collection)
By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

They arrived at the Textile Museum on July 31 in a suitcase, large pieces of Javanese batik-patterned cloth that Ann Dunham purchased in the 1960s. Dunham was then living in Jakarta with her second husband and her young children, Maya Soetoro-Ng and Barack Obama.

And now 16 of these hand-designed swaths of woven cloth are almost ready for display at the museum in Northwest Washington. The exhibit, which opens Sunday and runs through Aug. 23, marks the collection's sixth and final stop in a national tour, co-organized by the Indonesian Embassy and Soetoro-Ng, who arrived Friday in D.C. After Dunham's death in 1995, it was Soetoro-Ng who held on to her mother's batik collection.

The Textile Museum's Mattiebelle Gittinger, who coordinated the exhibit's appearance, isn't sure why the batiks were delivered to the museum in a suitcase, though the pieces -- some now laid out on mounting boards, some draped around mannequins, most of them about 8-by-3 feet -- appear to have de-wrinkled on their own.

The batiks are slated to make a guest appearance Saturday night at the Mandarin Oriental hotel for an invite-only dinner, with Soetoro-Ng in attendance. Politics, as ever, is at work here, too. A news release from the Indonesian Embassy says it's coordinating the exhibit and gala "in the context of implementing a comprehensive partnership between Indonesia and the US."

Gittinger says the Indonesian Embassy contacted the Textile Museum in April, requesting that the batiks be put on display in two weeks -- too short a time frame. But the museum, acknowledging that Obama-mania would likely draw visitors, agreed to put the collection on exhibit with more time: researching and writing up accompanying labels, selecting the pieces best suited for display and preparing docents for tours.

The exhibition is billed as "A Lady Found a Culture in Its Cloth: Barack Obama's Mother and Indonesian Batiks." (Doesn't the main title, in perfect iambic pentameter, sound a bit like a soothing line from Robert Frost? Nothing there is that doesn't love batik . . .)

The whole premise of the show is admittedly a bit flimsy. Initial reactions might run thusly: Go see Obama's mama's batiks? So it's . . . bits of cloth? Okay! Later, how 'bout we check out my grandma's appliqué pillows? And the items in the exhibition are neither expensive nor breathtaking. (Don't go expecting photos of a 6-year-old Obama in a batik sarong.) But it does open a fascinating window on the intelligent, curious woman who reared our president. It points us toward stories we might not otherwise hear: stories of Javanese patterns, centuries-old symbolism and the mother who saw value and meaning in the stuff of the everyday.

"We took this on because it's inherently interesting -- it's a fascinating story," Gittinger says. Dunham "was a real student of the culture, and each one of these represents some aspect" of it.

Obama's mother didn't have a great deal of ready money during her days in Indonesia. But the batiks weren't too costly, and their cultural value appealed to Dunham (herself a onetime weaver). She also lived near Jakarta's batik institute, according to Gittinger, and often sewed batik clothes.

Batik cloth -- made throughout Asia and Africa -- begins as a long, wide swath of white woven material, onto which wax is painstakingly applied by hand. The cloth is dyed, and the wax (which, wherever applied, prevents the cloth from absorbing dye) is boiled or scraped off. The process is repeated until the desired multicolored pattern emerges. The result can be used as a sarong, a large scarf, a full-length body wrap or simply an item for display. Certain patterns, which vary in composition and color from region to region, Gittinger says, are chosen to match the role or personality of the wearer.

"The Indonesian artists brought batik to a peak others didn't achieve," Gittinger says.

Walking through the collection Thursday, Gittinger points out some of the more evocative patterns in Dunham's collection. There's the "semi" design, emblematic of fertility, in which images of mountains, birds, wings and shrines repeat in reds and blues. And a four-color batik is, she says, emblematic of the four points of the compass, all seasons of one's life (a person is meant to don this during her winter years).

Gittinger stands over a full-body cloth, half unrolled on a table. She's never seen this calm, wavelike pattern in green, she says.

"Ann would have flipped when she saw this."

Much of batik's symbolic language is centuries-old, inherited from the Indonesian court system. The diagonal parang rusak (broken knife) pattern, Gittinger says, was once worn only by upper-class members of the central Javanese courts. One batik that boasts the parang rusak pattern shows signs of wear. So while there are no snapshots of baby Obama at the Textile Museum, one can at least take pleasure in imagining his mother, an adventurous woman in a new city, swathing herself in the robes of power, the formerly forbidden patterns.

A Lady Found a Culture in Its Cloth: Barack Obama's Mother and Indonesian Batiks. The Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $5 for non-members. More information is available at http://www.textilemuseum.orgor at 202-667-0441.

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