Social histories woven into Indonesian textiles at LACMA

With more than 17,000 islands and about 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia is among the most culturally diverse countries in the world. So the exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring 90-plus textile works from the collection of Mary Hunt Kahlenberg -- a onetime LACMA curator and co-owner of TAI Gallery/Textile Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. -- is appropriately eclectic. It extends over five centuries (from the 15th to the 20th) and includes ceremonial cloths and traditional clothing evincing a host of outside influences.

To the layperson, however, the 19th and 20th century works are perhaps the most compelling. Not only are they easier to decipher pictorially, but they also clearly reflect an intermingling of international cultures.

Take a woman’s wrap skirt, or kain panjang, circa 1905. Decorated in red and black batik, a dyeing technique native to Indonesia, it features a sinuous pattern of cranes and lotuses that could easily pass for Chinese or, as the wall text suggests, for European Art Nouveau (which was in turn influenced by Japanese aesthetics). The caption also speculates that the cloth was made in a Dutch-owned Javanese workshop, reminding us that Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands for 3 1/2 centuries before World War II.

The most seductive work in the exhibition also reflects a foreign influence -- in this case Indian. Dated from the late 18th to the 19th century and almost 10 feet long and 3 feet high, making it one of the largest pieces in the show, it’s dyed a rich teal and is covered with concentric circles of tiny dots applied in gold leaf. Across this shimmering field, repeated pairs of delicate, curling gold wings emerge, representing Garuda, a bird associated with the Hindu god Vishnu. The gold leaf gives the piece a sparkling, liquid quality, and it seems to ripple as you pass.

Other works display European, Chinese and even Arabic characteristics. A man’s shoulder cloth, or kain selendang, from the 19th century looks like a length of red tartan plaid edged in gold thread with an ornate pattern of stars and stylized vegetation. The caption for another 19th century woman’s wrap suggests that it was made for a bride of both Indonesian and Chinese heritage. The long beige cloth covered by a grid of boxes with various graphic motifs in black and red -- pinwheels, stars, flowers -- recalls Chinese calligraphy and Islamic tile work. Alongside, there’s a small photo of two seated women, showing how it might have been worn.

Indeed, the majority of the pieces were designed as clothing, mostly wraparound skirts or shoulder coverings. Unfortunately, the exhibition provides scant information about how they might have looked on a person: There are only a few tiny photos, and the single three-dimensional example is a skirt wrapped around a nondescript cylinder.

Of course, preservation requires that such aged, fragile works be hung flat on the wall or laid out in vitrines. But many of the cloths that would be wrapped horizontally around the body are displayed vertically on the wall, meaning that we see them at a 90-degree remove from how they were intended. So stripes that were meant to be vertical now appear horizontal.

Vertical hanging means that more of the works can fit in the exhibition’s three modest-sized rooms. Still, it’s hard to imagine a show of European clothing from the same era hung sideways on the wall.

This rotated view may account for the illegibility of the imagery in some of the earlier pieces. Despite a detailed description in the wall text and several minutes of intent looking, I was at a loss to identify the male and female figures supposedly represented in the interlocking geometric patterns of a skirt cloth from the 17th or 18th century.

Some earlier works do display a clearer division between figure and ground -- there are schematic images of horses, people, trees and boats. But the complexity of the more abstract woven patterns is dazzling.

A head or loin cloth dated 1635-1715 is a long, thin scroll on which threads in jewel-like blue, red and green are woven into an energetic pattern of interlocking spirals and S shapes. Here, the relationship between foreground and background becomes irrelevant, as the negative space created by one blocky spiral forms the beginning of the next.

Larger cloths are made up of rows of these elaborate, often multicolored chains, suggesting an ongoing, potentially infinite series of connections. Another piece, dated 1419-1520, is displayed flat but was originally woven in a tubular form -- a continuous loop -- intended as an heirloom to be passed from mother to daughter.

It’s not hard to see how such textiles, with their intricate interlocking patterns, cemented social bonds. They were both treasures handed down through the generations and sophisticated graphic depictions of the continuity of life.

Mizota is a freelance writer.