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Wearing Wealth and Styling Identity: Tapis from Lampung, South Sumatra, Indonesia

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2009
Alex Bortolot, Assistant Curator, Special Projects

The Hood Museum of Art is delighted to present the first major museum exhibition to focus solely on tapis, the heavily ornamented ceremonial sarongs made and worn by women in the south Sumatran province of Lampung, Indonesia. Tapis are made from cloth strips that are woven by hand from dyed cotton and silk threads, then sewn together into a tube, and finally decorated with gold, silk, mirrors, and other precious materials.

The exhibition explores the role of tapis in the ceremonial life of Lampung and explains what these complex garments say about their wearers through their weave structures, their dye colors, the motifs with which they are embellished, and the materials and techniques with which they are ornamented. Women wear tapis at weddings and other important public occasions, arranging themselves into colorful and glittering processions that are alternately the centerpieces and backdrops of such ceremonial moments. Their tapis indicate their wealth, social station, and family affiliation. An elite bridal attendant, for example, would be identified by a “Tapis Balak,” a luxurious sarong embellished with red felt roosters and rows of triangles composed of gold-wrapped threads (see cover image). The roosters and the triangle motif, which is known as “bamboo shoot,” both have connotations of growth and fertility. Conversely, a widow would be recognized by a comparatively minimalist tapis composed of deep blue bands that lacks metallic ornament.

For centuries Lampung’s history of involvement in global trade has been an important factor in the creation, display, and aesthetics of tapis. Lampung faces the Sunda Strait, which separates Indonesia’s two best-known islands of Sumatra and Java and is one of only two waterways through which ships can navigate between eastern and western Asia. As a result, the peoples of this province have enjoyed over two thousand years of maritime commercial connections with imperial China, Islamic caliphates, Indic empires, Southeast Asian kingdoms, and, more recently, Europeans and Americans. They traded pepper, elephants, gold, and other valuable commodities for prized textile goods and items that could ornament tapis, such as gold-wrapped thread and wire, silk floss, mica and mirrors, beads, metal sequins, and coins.

Three of the tapis in the exhibition show how the lore of the sea and its commerce and navigation became the source of rich visual, material, and conceptual vocabularies that give tapis meaning in Lampung society. Tapis worn by brides and matrons from highranking and wealthy families, for example, were called “Jung Sarat,” or “Fully Laden Ship.” The name evokes the source of Lampung’s wealth and casts the tapis as a metaphorical ship with a cargo full of riches. In one magnificent example, the surface of the ground cloth is covered entirely with goldwrapped threads that have been bent into geometric patterns and sewn into place with silk thread, a technique called “couching.” Other tapis, such as a “Tapis Laut Lineau” (“Sea Lines”), display what may be nautical charts of star paths or, as can be seen in the above detail of a “Tapis Raja Medal,” outrigger ships and sailors.

Tapis are entrancing for the variety of materials and complexity of techniques employed in their creation. Wearing Wealth and Styling Identity includes several examples of the stunning tapis type known as “Inuh,” which combines bands of silk-embroidered cloth with panels of ikat, a patterned cloth made by dying individual threads at calculated intervals so that a specific design emerges when they are woven into cloth. The embroidered bands are often equally intricate. Some portray abstracted cuttlefish, relatives of the squid that are native to the Indian Ocean, while others, as in this example, depict sequences of figures and boats that may allude to maritime trade or ceremonial processions on land.

While Indonesian textiles have been widely exhibited and studied, this exhibition represents pioneering work on the sumptuous tapis of Lampung. This scholarship was undertaken by Dr. Mary-Louise Totton, Assistant Professor of Art History, Frostic School of Art, Western Michigan University, who is the curator of the exhibition as well as author of the accompanying publication. Both endeavors grew out of her earlier work on representations of textiles in ancient Javanese temples and are complemented by new information she has uncovered in Indonesia on individual works in the exhibition and the genre as a whole. Wearing Wealth and Styling Identity also celebrates the occasion of the gift of a major portion of the Lister Family Collection of tapis textiles to the Hood Museum of Art. Stephen Lister, who has collected both tapis and Native American art, is a member of the Hood Board of Overseers and of the Dartmouth Class of 1963.

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