Saturday, May 13, 2017

Islamic Textiles in Southeast Asia (Part I)

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Islamic Textiles of Southeast Asia[1]
Many of the Southeast Asian textiles are closely associated with Islamic courts of the region. The rulers of the region's principalities drew on a wide range of sources to create a courtly presence entirely appropriate to their role as conduits between the older worlds of local ancestral traditions and the lively interaction with the international maritime trade.

Shoulder Cloth - late 19th Century.
Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Gift of Michael and Mary Abbott (1988).
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

By the time European emissaries were received by local Islamic rulers, the pomp of royal ceremony was well established. The Europeans were astounded by the rich ceremonial costumes of their host and by the opulent ambience of the surroundings. Silk, gold and silver , rich brocades and embroidery combined with intricately wrought jewellery made up the formal attire and furnishings of the court ceremony.

Ceremonial Hanging - early 20th Century.
Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

At receptions for allies and foes alike, such displays of finery confirmed the optical and economic importance of the principality, while for the more overtly religious, such opulence demonstrated the righteous of the reign. Foreigners were not the only ones in awe, rather local histories and annals, poems and romances are filled with rich descriptions of the apparel of the main protagonists.

Shoulder or waist cloth - 19th Century Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Textiles of the Southeast Asian courts included both locally made fabric and imported, often at great expense from neighbouring and distant shores. The exact nature of the textiles used in the past is unclear, and for the early centuries of the Islamic era in particular, there were few visual sources to replace the Hindu-Buddist temple reliefs and sculptures of deities and royal personages. These images are evidence of the legacy of textile traditions that the newly established Islamic courts received. The surprisingly detailed depiction of costume and cloth design on heirloom sets of shadow puppets in court treasuries provides clues to the evolution of some of the region's textile traditions.

Wayang geode shadow puppet - late 19th Century.
Surakarta, Central Java, Indonesia.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Throughout the Malay world the most prominent textile in royal ceremonial dress is the floating weft brocade songket. In this technique the design appears in clusters of gold threads set against a deep red silken ground. The silk, the gold-wrapped thread and the lac (from insect secretions often used to achieve rich and color-fast red dyes) were usually acquired through trade - from China, India, Siam and even France for fine gold thread. Fine songket was a visual confirmation of the dominant position of the Malay principalities in international trade.

Nobleman's ceremonial over wrap [kampuh songket or saput songket] - 19th Century.
Made of silk, gold thread, dyes; supplementary weft weaving [songket].
National Gallery of Australia.

In the Malay weaving centers that rim the South China sea, a frame loom evolved with treadles to open the weft sheds. Consistently broader fabrics could be achieved where, in the past, parallel and identical lengths from the back tension loom would be stitched together. In West Sumatra, where Minangkabau songket demands dense yet subtle patterning in gold and silver over the entire surface, an assistant may help in drawing the pattern sticks during the long and painstaking weaving process.

Ceremonial shoulder cloth - 19th Century.
Minangkabau, West Sumatra, Indonesia. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Acquired through gift and purchased from the Collection of Robert J. Holmgren and Anita Spertus, New York (2000).

In some regions, the weavers also incorporated patterned weft threads into the songket brocades to achieve a variated silk ground. These complex combinations of gold floats and weft silk threads tie-dyed (ikat or limar) before being woven into elaborate patterns, became a hallmark of Malay courts, at its most intricate in the East-coast Terengganu, where weft ikat displays as many as seven different dyes (see below). While some textiles are decorated only in weft ikat, and others have the weft ikat field enclosed by brocade borders, those combining brocade and ikat in intricate field designs are amongst the most remarkable. One fascinating distillation of the two decorative techniques, found only on textiles prized by the Cham of Cambodia, is the use of ikat-patterned floating threads to achieve the impression of many different colored supplementary wefts (see the two fabrics below).

Shoulder cloth or hanging - late 19th Century.
Front side of cloth.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Shoulder cloth or hanging - late 19th Century.
Reverse side of the above cloth.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Terengganu, Malaysia.
Ceremonial Stole, 19th Century.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

[1]D. Richards and J. Bennett, Crescent Moon, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (1996).

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