Arts + Culture

‘Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea’ opens Sept. 7 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Man’s cloth
Don Cole

Man's cloth woven in East Timor by the Fataluku peoples.

Awareness of Southeast Asia’s textile arts expanded rapidly around the world in the late 20th century. As the region garnered attention from art historians and museum curators and became a popular tourist destination, once-foreign terms like “batik” and “ikat” entered the vocabulary of art lovers, fashionistas and museum goers.

One major island in the Southeast Asian archipelago, however, remained unfamiliar to most outsiders. Because of Indonesia’s disputed annexation of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, the entire island of Timor was considered a sensitive zone by the Indonesian government, which restricted travel by foreigners. So although scholars recognized that Timor weavers were producing a wealth of textiles, their works remained largely unseen.

In fact, the women of Timor weave some of the most colorful and varied textiles in all of Southeast Asia. The cotton garments they produce, which often bear intricate patterns linked to specific families or clans, serve as clothing and markers of identity, and — when they’re exchanged as gifts — nurture social relationships. The weavers’ primary vehicles of cultural expression, the cloths reveal deep social, religious, historical and political meanings. 

“Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea,” which will be on display at the Fowler Museum from Sept. 7, 2014, to Jan. 4, 2015, is the first major exhibition to focus on Timor’s rich textile arts. The exhibition and the book that accompanies it present the stories and works of artists from villages throughout Timor.

Fifty beautifully dyed and intricately patterned cloths, including many from the Fowler Museum’s permanent collection — one of the world’s most complete and best-documented collections of Timorese textiles — will be on display. Included are flat, fringed cloths that men wear around their hips or shoulders, tubular skirts worn by women, funeral shrouds, horse blankets and an altar cloth. The textiles range from vibrant contemporary work to one of the earliest known textiles from Timor, a piece that has been dated to the mid-17th century to the late 18th century.

One rare cloth from Moro, in East Timor, mixes bold figures of water buffalo and other animals that are significant in local culture with imagery taken from imported Portuguese pattern books. A skirt borrowed from Honolulu Museum of Art shows the exuberant, colorful patterning that developed in conjunction with social changes in the 1950s.

The exhibition’s title was inspired by an origin story of the Tetun peoples of Timor that demonstrates the intimate relationship between weaving and Timorese cultural history. A sacred queen works at her loom weaving the sea, with her children nearby. When one child misbehaves and the queen throws her shuttle in anger, it tears into the woven “sea,” creating the island of Timor.

The exhibition shows off the technical expertise of the artists and demonstrates that women in Timor weave an impressive variety of cloth, routinely combining more weaving techniques than weavers in any other region of Southeast Asia. While most Timorese people now wear Western clothing, locally woven garments are still required for the most important occasions, including marriage rites and wakes for the dead.

“Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea” is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and co-curated by Roy W. Hamilton, the museum’s senior curator of Asian and Pacific collections, and Joanna Barrkman, an independent curator recently contracted to the National Gallery of Australia. The curators co-edited a book, “Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea,” that will be published by the University of Washington Press this fall.

Major funding for the exhibition and accompanying publication is provided by the R. L. Shep Endowment Fund at the Fowler Museum and the Henry Luce Foundation. Generous support is provided by the UC Pacific Rim Research Program, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and The Ahmanson Foundation via Lloyd Cotsen (publication only). Additional support comes from the Stella Krieger Memorial Fund, Avrum and Martha Bluming, Carolyn and Charles Knobler, the Fowler Museum Textile Council, the UCLA Foundation in memory of Anne Summerfield, and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is one of the country’s most respected institutions devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesdays through Sundays, from noon to 5 p.m.; and on Thursdays, from noon until 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $12 in Lot 4 (map). For more information, call 310-825-4361 or visit

Opening day events
Sunday, Sept. 7
An Afternoon of Global Textiles

Celebrate the opening of three textile exhibitions: “Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea” (Lucas Family Gallery); “Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana” (Fowler in Focus Gallery); and “Bearing Witness: Embroidery as History in Post-Apartheid South Africa” (Goldenberg Galleria).

12:30–2:30 p.m. 
Kids in the Courtyard: Now that’s a Wrap!
Learn techniques for making and embellishing textiles.

3–4 p.m. 
Fowler OutSpoken
Opening day talks by Roy Hamilton and Joanna Barrkman, co-curators of “Textiles of Timor, Island in the Woven Sea.”

4–5 p.m.
Enjoy light refreshments with the curators in the Fowler’s Davis Courtyard.

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