Friday, April 10, 2009


I recently visited the Indonesian textile exhibition currently on display at LACMA. The exhibition is part of the Mary Hunt Kahlenberg collection, a former curator at LACMA and world renowned authority on Indonesian textiles. The original group was put on display (in conjunction with a symposium on Indonesian Textiles) in September of 2008 and ran until March of this year. Several pieces were removed and replaced with new selections in March. The current group will be on display until September 2009.

As a long time collector/dealer of Indonesian art and textiles, I am pleased to see LACMA take a special interest in this area. I believe their intent is to eventually acquire this collection. Textiles played an important part in the ritual life of Indonesians as well as displaying their status, wealth, and cultural identity. The collection covers most of the primary textile weaving cultures of Indonesia with a wide selection of ikat, batiks, and supplementary-weft examples from Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, Bali, and Nusa Tenggara (the outer island, east of Bali).

Several pieces have been carbon dated (C14) with ranges from 1430 to 1715! In my early days of collecting textiles from this region, it was believed that none could have survived more than 150 years, so 19th century dates were consider ancient. However, in the last decade, as more C14 tests results have come in, it is clear that many Indonesian textiles are considerably older than anyone would have imagined. Having a few of these early examples on display is an eye-opener.

There are many interesting pieces on display, but several drew my attention: an heirloom batik found in Sulawesi (dated to 1645-1695); a Lemba bark cloth blouse from Sulawesi with applied mica paint; a Tampan from South Sumatra with a single red ship surrounding by sea creatures; a Palepai banner with two red ships from South Sumatra; a large, Porisitutu cloth from the Sulawesi with bold meanders and fantastic color; a very good Pua Sungkit from the Sarawak, Borneo with serpent figures; a shawl from Timor with extremely detailed ikat motifs; and an ancient ikat fragment from Sulawesi with knelling animal figures (dated to 1430-1510).

I am not a big fan of Indonesian batiks, so I’ll admit I was not bowled over with this section, which was heavily represented. Other pieces from islands like Savu and Roti were not spectacular by any means, but these areas are not known for incredible weavings. I was disappointed to find that textiles from Borneo were so under-represented. Aside from the very good Pua Sungkit mentioned above, there were no examples of the better known and spectacular large ritual ikat blankets (Pua Kombu) from Sarawak or any good examples of the smaller woman’s skirts (Kain Kebat). In the first run, there was an underwhelming example of one ikat skirt. Beadwork was minimally represented as well, with the exception of important beaded bag from Sumba that was shown in the first run.

Regardless, of a few weak areas in this collection, the other examples are so spectacular it is well worth the visit (and re-visit). Hopefully, this exhibition will bring renewed interest in Indonesian textiles, an area often neglected by museums and collectors of important tribal art.

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