Fashion Transformations of Ikat in Bali and Beyond

Blurriness of ikat exhibited in an endek textile, Bali.

As is obvious, ikat textiles have a wide variety of purposes. In Indonesia and Malaysian Sarawak they can play an important role in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings but they can also be worn as everyday sarongs or used as baby carrier slings or headwraps. Beyond these uses, however, ikat also has a more universal appeal. This has fostered a vigorous international commercialization of this cloth type.

Ikat as noted refers to the technique in which the threads of the cloth are dyed before they are woven. Threads are tied with resists and bleeding from beneath the ties create the distinctive blurry look of the patterns. The softness of the designs distinguishes ikat from other textiles, and, importantly, this blurriness of pattern seems to be a universally pleasing aesthetic. Thus, a textile with seemingly extremely localized, gendered,  protective and ritual significance in places like Bali and Iban longhouses in Sarawak has traveled far beyond its origin places in Southeast Asia to penetrate markets elsewhere.  In the process, ikat has shifted technologically, ideologically, aesthetically, and in terms of use---as it has journeyed, lately, into internationalized fashion sectors. This is an important cloth trajectory examined in our Cantor Art Gallery exhibition.

Ikat’s fate within transnational economies of style is an important issue, we assert. Cloth, in and of itself, is malleable. It can be shaped into various articles of clothing and purposed and re-purposed for many uses. Because of this quality of malleability, the use of cloth in fashion connects clothing and self-expression (at the level of the individual) and clothing and the representation of “peoplehood” (whether it be a matter of ethnic peoplehood identities or national identities). Ikat today figures into representation at all these levels—both in Southeast Asia and far beyond that, in venues such as Crate and Barrel catalogues and websites.

Ikat’s inherent “blurriness” is intriguing to think about in this regard.  Perhaps this is an especially transportable sort of textile, because of its unique aesthetics. According to Fred Davis in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1992), textile ambiguity can actively foster transborder crossings: as he writes, “In the symbolic realm of dress and appearance… ‘meanings’ in a certain sense tend to be simultaneously both more ambiguous and more differentiated...Meanings are more ambiguous in that it is hard to get people in general to interpret the same clothing symbols in the same way” (Davis 1992: 9). Ikat has travelled far, given this transmutability and built-in design instability.

We saw much evidence of these processes in the dress shops of Ubud in Bali, in more upscale ateliers there and in Sanur as Balinese and international designers sold pricey endek dresses and jackets, and in the famous Main Bazaar Street in Kuching.  There, cheap t-shirts for children reinterpreted once-sacred pua ikat motifs with great abandon. We also saw ikat’s mutability in fashion and housewares websites in the contemporary United States. What in the world is happening to ikat in these fashion scapes, as the textile form mutates with great commercial creativity?

Endek skirts, shop in Ubud; tourist art pua-style wallet, Kuching; ikat for sale in Ubud shop.


Fashion Worlds Trends

Fashion theory from work by anthropologists, historians, and cultural studies scholars over the last fifteen years is helpful here in setting an interpretive agenda (Niessen, Leshkowich and Jones 2003; Jones and Leshkowich 2003; Niessen 2003a, 2003b; Niessen 1993, 1999, 2003, 2009; Brydon and Niessen 1998; Niessen and Brydon 1998; Skoggard 1998; Molnar 1998; Miller and Woodward eds. 2011). Several themes stand out from this literature that help us make sense of ikat-as-fashion.

This literature points out that it is not only industrial and post-industrial societies like the United States and Japan that “have fashion”: rather, small-scale societies can also be said to follow fashion in body adornment styles and clothing modes.  The ideological references of such smaller-scale societies’ clothing types may be primarily religious or attuned to local gender systems or status or stage of life hierarchies—but, choices of such things as dye color for clothing or type of beadwork design atop a sarong can shift in such societies for reasons of taste.  Pierre Bourdieu’s famous work on this theme is relevant here (1984).  In other words, scholarship on Asian “traditional textiles” needs to enter dialogue with research on regimes of taste and fashion.

The fashion theory scholarship also asserts that fashion worlds today are in tense interaction with each other.  As well, the different parties to these discourses often deploy blunt stereotypes of “the Other.”  For instance, Orientalist understandings of Asian dress are rife in Western portrayals of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese women’s clothing styles.  In countries like Indonesia, international imageries of elite high fashion clothing interact with national dress regimes and those both interact with “indigenous styles” of clothing (Toba Batak styles and so on).  This is so particularly for women’s clothing.  Marketing such styles across national borders has sometimes resulted in the disempowerment of women clothing producers; at other times, small-scale entrepreneurs have gained some agency in such fashion interactions.

Furthermore, the decades of increasing globalization of cheap textile production (for instance, US$100 quilts made in China when such a product would cost many times that if manufactured in America) have been the very same time in which “traditional heritage textiles” have gained in political importance worldwide, as signs of ethnic identity in places like Peru or Indonesia (McAnany and Little 2011). And, as clothing such as blue jeans have become “global denim” traditional textiles such as ikat sarongs in Indonesia have gained added cachet, as icons of “authenticity.”

Endek from Ubud
Endek from shop in Ubud.

We saw these processes at work many times. During our fieldwork in Bali, we spent a few days at a guesthouse near Kuta beach (a notorious tourist hangout in the 1970s and nowadays a shopping Mecca for visiting Australians on holiday).  The staff of our hotel wore blue-green ikat as part of their uniform, perhaps with the aim of providing guests with an “authentic” representation of Bali as it once was, before the tourist onslaught. But this was one of Bali’s many illusions. Interestingly enough, the ikat worn by the hotel staff was a form of endek, a highly commercialized version of this tie-resist fabric.  Far from being a straightforward icon of Balinese “tradition,” endek has actually long been a thoroughly commercialized ikat.  Endek has indelible technological ties to late Dutch colonial policies of “modernizing” the traditional textiles sector through the introduction of commercial dyes and ABTM frame looms. Oddly enough, endek in such venues as tourist inns has come to symbolize Bali authenticities over the last 30 years of tourism boom times, pre- and post- 2002 Bali bombing in Kuta (a terrorist attack by an Al Queda franchise in Indonesia). So, endek was well worth a small case study in our fieldwork.

Endek as Commercialized Ikat

Endek is a prominent and economically quite successful example of the commercialization of Indonesian ikat.  It is essentially a fairly simple weft ikat which can be woven in many thread types (silk, cotton, polyesters).  Once made with predominantly red natural dyes, endek is now a commercial dye showpiece: one can purchase this fabric in almost any color dreamed up by chemists. Endek can have elaborate designs (historically the case, as shown in Hauser-Schaublin and Nabholz-Kartaschoff  1991) or more elemental, abstract designs (more common today, in commercialized endek).

Tailor shop and fashion shop selling endek, Ubud.

This Balinese ikat type can be used as sarongs, shoulder cloths, baby slings, or for ritual adornment of the body or altars.  Beyond this, though, today endek is cut and sewn into a vast variety of fashion clothing. Endek is made into scarves, vests, blouses, skirts, pants, kimono, jackets, party dresses, and more. It is also cut and made into such household goods as table cloths and table runners, pillow cases, curtains, and even wine caddies. Endek also appears as wallets, backpacks, passport holders and fanny packs.  In other words, this form of ikat is aggressively present in Balinese markets and street scenes today.

This represents a remarkable transformation for what once was a court-based sacred fabric for Balinese high nobility.  As B. Hauser-Schaublin and M.L. Nabholz-Kartaschoff note in their valuable chapter on endek in Balinese Textiles (1991: 15-16):


"[Endek] were worn on special occasions in palaces and temples as sumptuous wraparounds  (wastra, kampuh), as breast cloths (selendang, anteng) or as shawls (cerik), frequently containing added songket or supplementary weft patterns. Elaborate production methods and exotic imported materials such as silk, special dyes, gold and silver threads greatly enhanced the value of these traditional status symbols of the courtly culture."

Hauser-Schaublin and Nabholz-Kartaschoff go on to report that antique ritual endek cloths often contained depictions of Wisnu, mythical garuda birds, and sacred naga snakes; patola motifs of lions and elephants with riders are also found on these old, rare ikats (1991:16). Especially fine endek was produced in the noble courts of north Bali in Buleleng.

By the beginning of the 20th century north Balinese endek expanded in motif structure, to include flowers and geometrics.  Soon, endek was being woven and used throughout other parts of the island.  As Hauser-Schaublin and Nabholz-Kartaschoff go on to report (1991:17-20), during the 1930s, the tradition of endek production and use began to detach itself from the closed world of the courts and underwent a renewal.  In many villages in Tabanan, and even on Nusa Penida, weavers began to make simple endek materials from handspun local cottons or from factory-produced and patterned yarns on traditional cagcag looms [back strap looms]. At this time a dyehouse in Denpasar began marketing factory-patterned endek yarns in large quantities.  New techniques and new designs appeared employing lou colors on cotton, silk and soon afterwards on rayon, and new segments of the population became potential customers amd wearers of the fabrics as a result.

A part of this thorough rethinking of endek aesthetics and production was the reconceptualization of this once-sacred, aristocratic cloth as yardgoods, which could be bought by the meter and cut into any sort of clothing at all (1991:20-21).  This sparked much greater local Balinese popular demand for the fabric (now increasingly being seen as such). By the 1920s and 1930s much endek production in east Bali was done with the ATBM loom, introduced and fostered along in popularity by the Dutch colonial authorities as a means of mechanizing and “modernizing” traditional textile work.  This semi-mechanized frame loom allows a weaver to produce many centimeters of cloth in a single weaving session. Newer forms of bobbin wheels along with large-scale winders for the warps have yielded more economies of labor, Hauser-Schaublin and Nabholz-Kartaschoff report (1991: 21).

When mass tourism came to south and central Bali in the 1970s and 1980s endek production further intensified.  The cloth was being transformed into an icon of “Balinese-ness” in such venues as hotels and inns for foreigners. At the same time, the fabric was being produced in such quantities that it became affordable as everyday clothing, one step up in formality and meaningfulness from the Western garb popular throughout Indonesia since the 1950s (that is, pants and shirts for men and dresses and tops for women). Endek had “gone popular” and the endek factories of Klungkung and Sidemen became large-scale businesses.

Shop owners of Pelangi endek shop, Sidemen, Bali. Pelangi’s factory floor out back.

Today, the Sidemen Valley is the heartland of fine endek production as well as the locale for some cheaper goods.  Endek factories working with specific shops have also sprung up near Ubud.  In Sidemen, some endek is woven in weaver women’s homes or right outside in weaving pavilions; these women often work for bosses who give them funds to purchase threads and looms.  The weavers labor on a piecework basis and retain some of the profits from the return of their completed cloths back to their bosses. In other cases in Sidemen, an enterprising managerial family will own a major shop for selling endek.  Out back will be their large endek factory floor, full of dozens of ATBM looms.  Young women work at these for many hours a day, being paid for how much endek they produce.

A few older Sidemen weavers are reputed to know some of the older techniques of using natural dyes and weaving highly patterned endek on cagcag looms, but we did not succeed in finding any of these experts.  Technological modernization and economies of size seem to have carried the day.  Several years ago the national government sponsored “textile production upgrading” workshops for Balinese endek weavers in the West Java city of Bandung.  Weavers (including many men in this instance) learned more rationalized production techniques; all were encouraged to use only factory-made thread, in the latest and most fashionable colors.

With huge flows of endek ikats now streaming out of east Balinese shop floors and home-based looms, this ikat type has become Indonesia’s most thoroughly commercialized form of resist-dyed textile. This commoditization of this form of ikat has yielded several different varieties that we encountered in our brief fieldwork. We found that endek has become caught up in a marketplace of souvenirs and border-crossing fashion styles.

One venue with surprising examples of this was the ur-traditional village of Tenganan Pegeringsingan,(photos to the left).the famous home of the storied geringsing double ikats.  All visitors discover that this “traditional village” of Bali Aga residents is not only a cosmic village but a tourist Mecca chockfull of small and large shops selling a great variety of trinkets and cloth types from throughout Indonesia.  On display for sale are genuine geringsing (newly woven on cagcag looms in the village), knock-off versions of eastern Indonesian ikats (made in factories elsewhere in Bali and in Java), actual eastern Indonesian ikats, batiks from Java, and endek cloths galore.  These include cheap sarongs in garish colors but also lovely, luxurious, high-end endek sarongs decorated with “geringsing motifs.” That is, mandalas and so on through the standard repertoire of sacred geringsing designs. 

We purchased one of these for the exhibition and found from the seller that some Balinese families would prefer to own and use actual large geringsing for ceremonies but find that these special cloths are entirely too expensive for them. So, they are attracted to these faux geringsing made of upscale endek cloth, which retail for about US$60 and up for a large sarong length.  These endek do seem to be marketed largely by Balinese for Balinese but in this totally commoditized market any traveler can purchase a “geringsing endek” (shown to the right).We did not detect any hint of scandal associated with this cloth.

Cheap endek sarongs in more standard designs and endek made into tote bags, long skirts, and other tourist wear was also readily available in the street-side shops of the arts and tourism town of Ubud. These endek goods transform rapidly into new styles with each international fashion season.

We encountered another range of endek goods, however, in the upscale ex-pat residential and sales neighborhood of Sanur, near the Balinese capital of Denpasar. Sanur is a place of villas for foreigners and pricey restaurants—all in “Balinese style” (an international form of chic that now has its own English-language style magazines and coffee table books). A prominent example of Sanur-esque endek marketing is the Nogo shop.

Definitely an enterprise on the higher end, the Nogo Bali Ikat Center in central Sanur boasts of itself as “a purveyor of high quality hand-woven ikat fabrics and their designs have upholstered and decorated scores of hotels and villas in Bali, including the Four Seasons Resort Bali, Le Meridien, Grand Hyatt, and Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa.” (see http://www.nogobali.com/Pages/about_us.htm). This upscale shop takes ikat and turns it into superior fashion-wear such as shirts, dresses and jackets. The shop also sells modestly priced, factory-made versions of eastern Indonesian “traditional textiles” such as east Sumbanese hinggi. Also on offer: bolts of brightly colored and superbly woven and dyed endek yardgoods.  Customers can purchase these by the meter, to take to a seamstress or tailor and have made up into a dress or evening wear shirt (along the lines of Indonesia’s familiar batik shirts for men’s semi-formal wear).

One item, in particular, stood out during our visits to the Nogo shop. We purchased a black and brown “cocktail dress” made from ikat (shown to the left). Retailing for roughly $70, the dress could easily be worn by a stylish young woman for a formal evening party in America. Taking ikat and transforming into something that evokes a classic Western entertainment life style is something that the Nogo shop has done quite well. Their items are of high quality and appeal to buyers from around the world, for stereotypic leisure activities such as parties with drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

Ikat, of course, was not originally conceptualized as being purposed as a fancy, knee-length, discretely sexy dress for young female partygoers, drink in hand.  However, insightful and well linked-in businesses like Nogo have adapted this cloth type to the needs and wants of the tourist and Bali-based expatriate markets.

The Nogo shop’s managers are intriguingly transnational in this regard and perhaps this is a key to their success.  Their designer is Lily Coskuner and the Nogo staff as a whole work closely with Balinese colleagues.

Since colonial times, places like Indonesia have been combating the “Orientalism” and “exoticism” projected on their cultures. This discourse placed Southeast Asian cultures in an inferior position, deeming them “timeless” and “passive.” Such cultural expressions and specifically dress were used to keep the colonized in their subordinate positions; the labels have stuck in many venues. Leshkowich and Jones observe, “These discourses continue to shape readings of dress today, so that even when Asian dress is celebrated, such moves perpetuate a script of a dominant, knowledgeable West and an inferior, ignorant Orient” (Leshkowich and Jones 2003: 9). The Nogo managers, however, have found a way to break free from these discourses by marketing ikat in a way that the West deems high fashion – in leisure time clothes sewn in an intriguingly luxurious, lustrous, “real ikat.”

Not all Balinese ikat fashion experiments have been so convincing and so fluid in economic and aesthetic senses, however.  Some ikat dresses and shirts, in fact, have been misfires.

Above: Ikat bags hanging in a shop along the main street in Ubud.

Ikat Emporia in Ubud: Ikat Gone Wild?

Obivously, ikat fashions in Bali today are anxiously positioned between “tradition”  and “modernity" and between Balinese identities (of several sorts) and more cosmopolitan and internationalized ones.  Many ikat goods reflect this today, as we discovered in our summer 2012 fieldwork in the irrepressibly commercial town of Ubud, Bali.

Walking down any street in this arts and tourism town, one can see ikat in a profuse (even giddy) variety of forms. Whether it is being worn by Balinese men as a sarong in a ritual procession or hung on display as skirts and bags for touristic sale at Ubud’s central market, this textile is everywhere. We found endek and cheap versions of eastern Indonesian ikat hanging outside local shops on the side of the street and on mannequins in store windows. Ikat had different weight and meaning in different venues and describing “ikat in Ubud” would be an endless task. Suffice it to say that ikat is being fashioned into everything from purses to flip-flops to evening gowns in order to meet the demands of international fashion and what might be termed youthwear tastes, of tourists and also of Balinese young people.

The shops along Ubud streets such as Monkey Forest Road and Main Street are overflowing with forms of ikat on display and for sale. Bags and shirts hang from shop windows, drawing tourists into the allure of “authentic” Bali but also touristic Bali, as a sun-‘n-surf spot for vacationing Australians. But, we found that there was actually important variety in the types of shops marketing ikat in Bali.

In contrast to the more expensive shops, such as Nogo in Sanur, Ubud’s central market (depicted above) is filled with cheaper items including, but not limited to ikat cloth. Here one can find bags, keychains, and various clothing items made of ikat (not to mention soaps, aromatic oils, spices, pepper, coffee beans, stone sculptures, Balinese masks, fake ‘primitive’ sculptures, and so on and on ad finitum).  The items sold at the market are, for the most part, of lower quality and inexpensive. The vendors are practically on top of one another, competing for customers and bargaining down prices with those interested in what they have for sale. The hectic environment is vastly different than the quiet, serene, and organized (not to mention air conditioned) lay out of the Nogo Shop in Sanur.

One particular store we visited on the Main Street in Ubud sold textiles and other items from East Timor, or Timor Leste.  This was an establishment called the Yosim Gallery and it was established by a prominent family of Chinese-Timorese antiques dealers after the East Timor crisis of 1999 when the Indonesian military sought to delay East Timorese political independence. The family was once based in Dili but then moved to Bali.  They seek to sell East Timorese antiques, fine textiles, and fashionwear to tourist publics, for profit but also to pump funds back into still-impoverished East Timor. On their shelves, next to wood carvings and folded piles of fine old ikat, the store also had stacks of heavy weight, button-up shirts. We were intrigued and started to sort through the stacks, in search of pieces for the exhibition. These shirts turned out to be patchwork items: made of small patches of different old Timor ikats, often very fine ones.  Dangling from the back or the pocket of the shirt was the actual original fringe taken from the end of an ikat textile as it was cut off the loom. The ikat patches were clearly taken from old sarongs or cloaks; they were weathered and worn but the weaving and dyeing quality was high. The shirt we purchased (shown below) had sections of a bright lime green textile and an impressive fringe.  We liked it so much that we bought a companion piece (or, we called it such): a jaunty miniskirt (also shown below), also made of patchwork ikat (with a zipper, this time).

These fashion items were apparently made for Western consumption, and the shop clerk whom we talked to confirmed this. This shirt, however, does not translate into something readily seen as “fashionable” in the eyes of Euroamerican buyers. The shirt seemed to us to be a bit misshapen, with ungainly and hard to wear long sleeves.  The material was way too heavy to be comfortable in tropical Bali, yet the shop clerk told us it was intended to be worn by tourists while on vacation.  The patchwork of ikat pieces ended up (to our eyes, at least) making the shirt look like a hand-me-down, or something from a left-over table at a rummage sale.  The very fine quality of the original ikat pieces was totally lost, in this fashion clamor.  The shirt ended up being funny-looking, and kind of forlorn. In an attempt to compete in the global fashion market, this shop had commissioned these shirts from Timor Leste seamstresses, to be made from “authentic Timor ikat,” as if that would appeal to discerning tourists. But it seems that no one along the supply chain quite understood what would constitute a “Western” style in men’s shirts from tropical countires. Blockages had occurred, and this patchwork shirt’s fashion appeal short circuited.

Ikat Travels to America

Ikat fashion in the United States also comes within the purview of our Cantor Art Gallery exhibition. As noted, ikat is characterized by the technique used to dye the threads. That being said, calling something “ikat print” or “ikat patterned” is problematic in terms of any strict definition of ikat. But, this has certainly not deterred marketers of ikat in lands far from Southeast Asia. In the United States today, ikat has transitioned from being a concrete, very precise cloth production and decoration technique to becoming solely a motif. This has been a major transition and in some ways a troubling one. In places like the contemporary United States, in stores and one websites, ikat “prints” can be found on everything from couch cushions to sundresses to 2012 holiday season tree ornaments (a Crate and Barrel contribution).

Ikat gained popularity on the heels of the “tribal” print fashion trend of the late 1900s. The fashion blog, Fashionista, offered an illuminating post titled “Our Latest Obsession: Ikat Print” in summer, 2010. Blogger Dhani Mau wrote, “Though the tribal print trend seems to be heading out the door, there is something so cute and chic about the ikat print specifically that makes us want to wear it in as many ways as possible” (http://fashionista.com/2010/07/our-latest-obsession-ikat-print/). Mau makes no mention of what ikat actually means, just that is a “chic” new version of her previous “tribal” obsession. Note the emphasis here on the blogger’s own self-identity and on her own passionate fashion preoccupations and desires. Blogs such as this one demonstrate the expansive, thoroughly transnational conceptual structure surrounding ikat as it is understood as a cloth type today in the United States. This textile certainly has the ability to cross borders on the strength of its special softness of motif structure, but the farther it travels, it seems, the more it changes. Ikat in America has shed not only its Southeast Asian religious and gender ideologies but also its very production techniques, as a tie-resist sort of fabric.  Ikat in the American shopping imaginary has become ikat motif, pure and simple. That certainly streamlines ikat’s factory production.

Not surprisingly, the American home decor store Crate and Barrel caught on to the same trend that Fashionista spotted on the runways. The same style displayed on clothing could be translated into housewares, Crate and Barrel managers found.  Ikat is perhaps even more popular in home furnishings than in clothing wear. For instance, the Home and Garden Television network (HGTV) featured an entire article on their website with tips and tricks of “How to Incorporate Ikat With Your Decor,” including printed shower curtains, bowls and even wallpaper (http://www.hgtv.com/decorating-basics/how-to-incorporate-ikat-with-your-decor/pictures/index.html). There is brief mention, however, of the technique of “resist dyeing” used to produce ikat.  But, the website compares it to “tie-dye” – a major misunderstanding of ikat handlooming. As ikat travels, it seems, much is lost in translation in terms of technological detail and ideological depth, when the cloth type moves beyond Indonesia and is repositioned in the globalized, fluctuating world of fashion.

Especially notable is the total loss of gendered associations with ikat, as it moved from a cloth once linked to women’s high status and supernatural fertility powers to becoming a fashion icon, of “‘indigeneity” in a very generic sense.  Indeed, in American fashion promotions of ikat-type clothing, Central Asian forms of ikats are often mixed in with Southeast Asia’s quite different motif structures and color palettes.

These processes have recently gone to extremes. As mentioned, Crate and Barrel recently launched ikat printed ornaments for the 2012 holiday season. These tree ornaments are somehow both faintly Indonesian and faintly Central Asian. The ikat effect is rather “painted on,” as well. Similar trends show up in clothing in ikat style. Mainstream clothing stores such as Anthropologie and American Eagle (targeting youth) have all carried shorts, scarves, dresses, and so on stamped with ikat-like prints whose only reference points aesthetically seem to be their own design consciousness. This is Asian ikat, sans Asia. According to Sandra Niessen in her afterward to Re-Orienting Fashion Theory, “A complex, ambiguous, and not just a little bit murky relationship exists between Western fashion and other clothing systems, especially non-Western, found throughout the world” (2003: 243). Southeast Asian ikat’s relationship to Euroamerican fashion does indeed have murky elements to it, a topic to which we turn next.

Ikat Design Theft?

Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff have recently skewered the worldwide tendency for neoliberal economies to commodify everything: not just overt products for sale but also social identities, such as “!Kung San-ness” made into an object for touristic appreciation and consumption (2009).  Corporate models of organization are prime movers here, as “peoples” and also their “arts” get remade along neoliberal business lines.  A far-flung consumer public then interacts with such societies as the San, as one might buy a new pair of Nike shoes.  The Comaroff’s critique has clear implications for Southeast Asian ikat’s transformation into a fashionwear and household goods consumable.

As shown in the fashion world examples above, today Indonesian and Sarawak ikat designs (if not full scale handloom production technologies) have fallen into a transnational maw of marketing mania, with ikat Christmas holiday ornaments as one result.  How can we as museum curators and docents for an exhibition on Southeast Asian ikats best think about these issues of culture, capitalism, identity, and possible exploitation?  Anthropologist Michael F. Brown offers a valuable set of ethical guidelines in his book Who Owns Native Culture? (2003).

Brown deals in his study with a great variety of what might be termed culture and ownership controversies: questions about what groups should get royalties for folk ethnobotanical knowledge that is used by pharmaceutical corporations for their own profit; questions about the dissemination of archival photographs by 19th century ethnographers who snapped pictures of secret rituals in American Indian societies; questions about “cultures and copyrights.” Brown notes that one approach to these thorny issues might be a legalistic one, in which contemporary indigenous communities gain full-scale legal copyright to cultural materials (such as pottery designs by the Hopi, for instance).  Yet, he writes, this approach may well be overly rigid, not to mention rather absurd given the long human history of constant flows of knowledge and design imageries across peoplehood borders that have always been porous.  Brown advocates a more measured approach in which the dignity of the authoring society is kept uppermost, by users and borrowers of a cultural insight or design complex or motif.  He writes that anthropologists, community activists, museum staff, corporate officials, journalists, and all parties to debates about “cultural ownership” should seek to “[find] justice in the global commons” (2003:229-254).

 

Example of patola trade cloth, late 1700s or early 1800s. Many Indonesian and Malaysian weavers over the years have borrowed design ideas from patola.

We concur.  In Asian textile worlds, ikat loom technologies, motifs, and dye color conventions have long crossed societal borders, going back to at least the time of the great trade cloth patola borrowings of the 1400s C.E. and before. Local weaving communities in places like Flores may well claim that their ikats hark back to pure traditional models, but historically this is simply not true. These are thoroughly invented traditions. Much of the vibrancy and motif design verve of island Southeast Asian ikats has come from vigorous cross-border borrowings and individual weavers’ reactions to new weaving ideas.  Globalized fashion world uses of ikat qua ikat design does present new possibilities for outright cultural knowledge theft, but we would suggest that carefully curated public museum exhibitions can work as a bulwark against this, through public education “toward dignity,” as Brown advocates.

References

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   1998   “Introduction: Adorning the Body,” in Brydon and Niessen 1998, pp. ix-xvii.
Niessen, Sandra, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and  C. Jones, editors
   2003 Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress.  Oxford, U.K. and New York: Berg.
Skoggard, Ian
   1998 “Transnational Commodity Flows and the Global Phenomenon of the Brand,” in Brydon and Niessen 1998:  57-70.

For Further Reading

      Current research on these topics often appears in the journals Textile and Fashion Theory.  See also Mary-Louise Totton’s excellent catalogue for an exhibition of south Sumatran tapis cloths at Dartmouth College: Wearing Wealth and Styling Identity: Tapis from Lampung, South Sumatra, Indonesia (2009, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH).