Jewels of Indonesian Textile Art

Jewels of Indonesian Textile Art

It is in the heart of the humid jungle of Borneo, in the shade of the verandas of the longhouses built on the banks of the rivers, that the most emblematic textiles of this vast island territory are born. These textiles, given the local name of pua, compose a vibrant and colorful fresco, reflecting the cultural and visual identity of peoples such as the Iban or the Maloh. Assigned a variety of forms and decorations and having a multitude of diverse uses, they form, in the vast corpus of Indonesian textiles, a singular whole – certainly versatile but also deeply and intrinsically linked to the balance between the worlds of women and men, of the spiritual and the material, of ancestors and malevolent spirits.

Map of Indonesia. Rights reserved

The textile art of the Iban women of Borneo is a female prerogative – a quasi-constant in the Indonesian world – and is charged with a veritable symbolic dimension, which places it well beyond a simple act of utilitarian creation. It is no wonder then that the Iban consider weaving to be the feminine counterpart of headhunting, a masculine activity. While the boys become men during the days and nights of hunting, deep in the island's interior forests, returning to the village with a newfound prestige and a newly won skull, it is by spinning, dyeing and weaving that the women gain influence and consideration.

At the height of their art, women who have repeatedly demonstrated their skill and spiritual strength are given the privilege of weaving the most powerful and dangerous designs, those that adorn the pua and especially the pua sungkit. Here, the central motif of the twelve naga or dragons, a splendor of symmetry, combined with the two leku sawa ("Path of the Python") friezes, symbolically evoke the practice of headhunting and inspire men to show the same ferocity as the spirits sewn into the cloth.

A woman ties threads before dyeing. Rights reserved

In Borneo, an Iban woman who weaves a pua brings forth with her hands the future treasures of her family, to be transmitted from generation to generation. She immortalizes, in the repetitive interlacing of the warp and weft, the immemorial repertoire of the legends and myths of her people. She affirms, in fact, her place in a world governed by the sacred, the ceremonies and the rites.

Ceremonial cloth pua, Iban, Borneo, Indonesia, early 20th century. Estimate: €8,000–12,000 WestImage - Art Digital Studio

For the beauty of the pua – Iban ceremonial blankets par excellence – is matched only by their symbolic power. Powerful among the powerful, the pua sungkit are objects of particular reverence. The strength and effectiveness of these fabrics, fundamental to the rites for which they are used, are rooted in the power of the weavers and the efficiency of the patterns they create.

Ceremonial cloth pua (detail), Iban, Borneo, Indonesia, early 20th century. Estimate: €8,000–12,000

Unlike other pua, such as pua kumbu, the repertoire of pua sungkit designs remains quite limited and many imitate the patola designs of the Indian double ikat cherished in Indonesia as ceremonial textiles, symbols of wealth and prestige. However, there are rare forms, such as the "dancing figure", whose rarity is explained by the fact that only the most daring weavers dared to represent them. The pua sungkit are in fact the privilege of women who have reached the rank of master (indu tau muntang tau tengkebang – "the one who knows how to bend the threads and create new patterns") or grandmaster (indu tau takar tau gaar – "the one who knows how to measure the mordant bath and handle the threads") in the art of weaving. It is also in their hands that the fabric, once completed, fully takes its place at the heart of the Gawai Enchaboh Arong ceremony.

This ceremony, which has men and women come together to ensure the protection and prosperity of the community, is conceived as a direct link to the ancestral practice of headhunting, an exclusively male activity. When young warriors have proven their bravery and return to the village with a trophy head, the Gawai Enchaboh Arong is the step that completes this rite of passage. Kneeling down, like a midwife bringing a baby into the world, the weaver carefully collects the head in her pua sungkit and places the whole in a ceramic bowl. Carried through the village by a procession of chanting women, the trophy head undergoes a ritual purging. Cleared of all negative energy by the combined action of the supernatural power of the pua sungkit and the women's singing, it finally reaches the desired stage of being a beneficial object of power, capable of ensuring the prosperity and continuity of the clan.

The decorative choice of the six rows of deities that form the central motif of this pua and its beautiful deep red color, which heightens the blue indigo-dyed decorations, are the precious mark that this textile is the work of a weaver with a particularly strong ritual power. Similar in its decoration to the pua sungkit, previously in the Steven G. Alpert collection, now in the Dallas Museum of Art, it is without contest a splendid example of technical mastery in the service of ritual art.

Of all the pua, sungkit pua are undoubtedly the rarest. From the verb sungkit "to lift", they are distinguished by the presence of a supplementary white weft usually left uncolored, accompanied by weft threads rendered bright blue by the use of indigo dye. In the Saribas region, the ritual name of these blankets Lebur Api or "White Heat" is not only a clear reference to their characteristic structure but also to their supernatural ability to destroy negative energies. Woven only by women who have demonstrated great spiritual maturity, pua sungkit play a central role in the very specific Gawai Enchaboh Arong rite that brings the world of women and men together to ensure cosmological balance and stability in the life of the community.

Ceremonial cloth pua (detail), Iban, Borneo, Indonesia, early 20th century. Estimate: €6,000–9,000

This ceremony, which takes place at the return of the headhunters, is a rite of passage of crucial importance for young warriors. Passing from the hands of the novice to the Lebur Api held by a woman recognized for her talent in weaving, the trophy head is cradled and carried around the village like a child, to the rhythm of shouts of joy or chants, until the spiritual force of the blanket coupled with the magical power of the women's songs removes all malevolent energy and transforms it into a revered object of power and prosperity.

Ceremonial cloth pua, Iban, Borneo, Indonesia, early 20th century. Estimate: €6,000–9,000 WestImage - Art Digital Studio

The disappearance of the Lebur Api, along with the gradual abandonment, since the 20th century, of the practice of headhunting and therefore of the Gawai Enchaboh Arong, adds to their rarity. Although the sungkit technique is still used in modern weaving, the ceremonial dimension is now almost totally excluded. Among the last known examples that were most likely used to collect trophy heads are the two pua sungkits in the Dallas Museum of Art, previously from the Steven G. Alpert collection, one of which is decorated with a similar pattern of twelve intertwined dragons.

Ceremonial Cloth, Pua. Dallas Museum of Art. Rights reserved

African & Oceanic Art

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