Arts + Culture

Two Fowler exhibitions showcase women's textile traditions of Southeast Asia

"Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia" and "Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel" run from August through mid-December at UCLA

In the Southeast Asian archipelago, making cloth is regarded as the archetypal form of women's work and creativity. Traditionally, women learned the textile arts — typically weaving or making batik — before they were eligible for marriage. Later in life, excelling in making cloth, and especially in mastering complex natural-dye processes, was regarded as the highest measure of a woman's achievement.
This summer, the Fowler Museum at UCLA will present two exhibitions — "Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia" and "Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel: Cloth and the Cycle of Life in Kerek, Java" — that offer visitors a chance to delve into these fascinating and longstanding traditions like never before.
Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia
(Aug. 1–Dec. 12)
In "Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia," weavers and batik artists speak for themselves in videos produced at eight sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and East Timor. What motivates women to create new patterns? How do they adjust to changing social and economic situations?
A panoply of human emotions and experiences — determination, longing, dream inspiration, theft, war and more — emerge from the stories of these remarkable women. In one video, for example, a weaver in Tutuala, at the far eastern tip of Timor, describes how she designed a cloth pattern by copying the skin of a snake. She recounts that this "snake cloth," now served by the snake spirit, became an object of such power that when one was stolen during a militia rampage in 1999, the snake destroyed all the coconut trees in Baucau in revenge. Another weaver tells of learning weaving patterns from her deceased mother, an expert weaver, when her mother visits her in dreams.
These seven- to 10-minute oral histories include interesting footage of daily life with extended families and the interplay of generations, detailed looks at weaving and dyeing techniques, and unique celebrations, such as a wedding in a sultan's palace. Textiles created by the featured weavers and batik makers accompany each video.
Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel
(Aug. 1–Dec. 5)
"Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel: Cloth and the Cycle of Life in Kerek, Java" provides a focused look at the community of Kerek, the last place in Java where batik is produced on hand-woven cotton cloth and where a full range of hand-woven textiles still provides the foundation for a remarkable system of interrelated beliefs and practices.
Named after Nini Towok, the Javanese goddess who cultivates cotton in the heavens and sends her yarn to Earth in the form of moonbeams, this exhibition explores the multiple meanings of Kerek's rustic but beautiful textiles.
Each type of cloth made for use in Kerek is created for a specific purpose: to be worn by a person of a particular gender, age, social or residential group; to serve in life-cycle events such as marriages or funerals; or to act as a focal point in agricultural ceremonies or curing rites. The functions, techniques, patterning and especially the color combinations of the cloth all form part of a highly structured and elaborate system of knowledge that is remarkably integrated with the community's social organization, mythology and ritual practices. Such integrated systems once existed in many parts of Java, but by the late 20th century could be observed only in Kerek.
Among the techniques weavers of Kerek employ are batik (a wax resist dyeing process) and ikat (patterning created on the yarns before dyeing and weaving). These often complicated techniques are used singly or in combination, as dictated by the wearer and the context in which the cloths will be used.
The exhibition concludes with a stunning circular array of 17 ensembles, each made to be worn by a particular type of individual and arranged according to the cardinal directions and their associated colors.
The book "Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel: Cloth and the Cycle of Life in Kerek, Java," by Rens Heringa, will be published this summer by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and distributed by the University of Washington Press.
Additional information
"Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia" is curated by Roy Hamilton, the Fowler Museum's curator of Asian and Pacific collections. Major support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the R.L. Shep Endowment Fund. Additional support is provided by the Asian Cultural Council, the Fowler Textile Council and the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Republic of the Philippines).  
"Nini Towok's Spinning Wheel" is guest curated by Dutch textile scholar Rens Heringa. Major support is provided by the R.L. Shep Endowment Fund and the Fowler Textile Council. Additional support for the publication is provided by the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research. The accompanying programs for both exhibitions are made possible through the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund and Manus, the support group for 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 museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and on Thursday from noon to 8 p.m.; it is closed Monday and Tuesday. The Fowler Museum, part of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $10 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit
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