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Indonesian Textile Arts
Flores Island

Fiery Origins

The diverse textile traditions of Flores have been influenced by a volcanic geography that kept many communities in isolation. The cultures of Bajawa in the west, Ende in central Flores, and Sikka in the east exemplify this diversity. Ancestral traditions have accommodated Catholicism and Islam; music and dance, the daily use of traditional dress, and clan house architecture remain vibrant.

Over a dozen active volcanoes tower over Flores, and the island’s landscape reflects its fiery origins. Mountains and ravines isolate each village from its neighbors, and this isolation has given rise to astounding diversity: there are five main language groups, countless dialects, and innumerable ethnic and cultural subdivisions. Portuguese Catholicism and Dutch Protestantism mingle with local traditions and an earlier import, Islam. The mixture is unique in every village.

Mt. Inerie, Ngada

Muslim traders founded Ende on the south central coast, and their descendants still populate the city. Members of the Lio ethnic group, mostly Catholic, populate the surrounding region. Intermarriage has always been common. Children of mixed marriages may choose their faith, and Muslim and Catholic graves stand side by side in family burial grounds. Ende-Lio communities feel united by their shared traditions, rather than divided by religious differences.

Kampung Bena, Bajawa

In Onelako village near Ende, the local textile arts are blossoming. Onelako women color their skirts and shoulder cloths with blue indigo and deep rust-red from Morinda and sappan (Caesalpinia sappan). A half-dozen women specialize in indigo dyeing, but many more understand the morinda process, and their complex red dye work has made Onelako famous. Dye plants grow along the streets and paths, in gardens, and around houses.

Ita Yusuf and Maria Angelina, Ndona

Cloth from Ende sells well in the tourist markets in Bali, but only a fraction of local production leaves Flores. Textiles from the surrounding villages flood Ende’s fabric market. The glut drives down local prices, and even prolific weavers have difficulty raising their incomes. For weavers who emphasize quality over quantity, Threads of Life provides a niche market and a real opportunity to boost profits.

Ita and Teresia arrange threads on a loom

In 1988, the community of Watublapi established a cultural cooperative with the aim of rediscovering, sustaining and developing the art and culture of the Sikka people. Tourists and independent buyers who venture up from Maumere are treated to song, dance, music, and a display of beautiful local textiles. For the villagers, outsiders offer a valuable alternative to the Maumere textile market, where prices do not support high quality work.

A Maumere textile trader

Tilling, planting, and the harvest are celebrated with music and dance from Watublapi’s pre-Christian tradition. Powerful vocal harmonies complement symphonies of gongs and bamboo xylophones, and animistic songs accompany homemade violins, banjos, ukuleles, guitars, and bass fiddles. Dancers in indigo-blue blouses and intricate ikat skirts stamp their feet and sing along. The people of Watublapi come of age, marry, and pass away surrounded by music, and clad in traditional textiles.

Yustina Neing, Watublapi

Watublapi’s traditional clothing contains coded messages about the men and women who wear it. The colors and motifs of a woman’s garments, the cut of her shirt, the number of her necklaces and the material of her bracelets all send signals about age, marital status, and community standing. Many women make their own clothes, and unmarried girls can broadcast their desirability to potential husbands through the quality of their dress.

Traditional dance, Watublapi

The town of Bajawa, home of the Ngada people, sits at the base of Inerie, a volcano whose name means Great Mother. Traditional villages dot the surrounding hilltops, each with several clan houses and a cluster of shrines to clan ancestors. Most Ngada live in Bajawa or near their fields, but a contingent of each family remains in their old village, hosting clan rituals such as weddings and funerals.

Bracelets of bamboo, palm leaf, and ivory

Each clan in a village maintains shrines to its primary male and female ancestors. Bhaga shrines, dedicated to female ancestors, resemble houses in miniature. In front of each bhaga stands an umbrella-shaped ngadhu, the male ancestor shrine, and a small standing stone. Villagers sometimes add stone platforms called ture to the plaza. Ture commemorate important events, and make fine places to meet or hold a feast.

Kampung Bena, Ngada

Men handle politics, but Ngada women control all family property. Name, status, and possessions all descend through the female line, and nothing of value is bought or sold without a consensus among clan women. Traditional Ngada houses contain a room where the women can discuss family business. These meetings are highly secretive; the rooms are windowless to prevent eavesdropping, and nothing said in the sanctum is repeated outside.

Ceremonial dress, Bajawa