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From isolated objects to manifestations of culture embedded in context

Originally the aim was to collect solely pusaka: pieces, usually of great beauty, with enough importance for the local population to serve as heirlooms. But while the name Pusaka stuck, within a few years the focus changed. Out of deepening acquaintance grew a keener interest in the social role of ikat textiles in Indonesian society. The object became to achieve an understanding of culture through a study of its material manifestations, specifically ikat, and to achieve a deeper appreciation of the value of collected objects through a study of the culture from which they sprang. The focus shifted to building a collection of indeterminate size, presumably continually growing, that affords an overview of Indonesian ikat traditions - ideally including superb examples.
       This focus was not premeditated, but wholly intuitive: born from love for this aspect of Nusantara's material culture as encountered in the field. It was only several decades later that we found this approach advocated in writing, and very eloquently too, by Borneo-expert Michael Heppell. We wish to share this encounter with a like-minded spirit by quoting a passage from his 2014 book The Seductive Warp Thread:
       "Nowadays, galleries with textile collections and collectors seek out only the very best examples of a people's textiles art. Anything less than the exquisite is spurned. Consequently textiles which carry interesting messages about the past disappear from public view unless they are also of the highest quality. As textiles are sold by the poor Ibanic to wealthy foreigners, a people's memory bank is squandered as historically important textiles of lesser quality are cast to the winds. That leads to an ethical question related to the collection policies of many galleries and museums, particularly those associated with museums. By stripping out only the best, they ensure that a huge body of information is lost as pieces of historic interest but modest beauty come to be someone's mementoes of an exotic holiday or something similar rather than assuming a place as an important relic in a memory palace."
        The same applies to material culture across the archipelago. A pertinent, and ironic, illustration is our Ili Mandiri kewatek kenirek miten from the eastern Flores peninsula. This used to be the region's most common and lowly type, intended for workaday use. Pretty, on account of its graphic white on indigo design, but not as dramatic nor as intricate as the kewatek méan, made as ceremonial attire and for use as bridewealth.
        The latter were prized and venerated by the local population, so this is what most curators and collectors sought to obtain. But the kewatek kenirek miten, those lowly but lovely indigo sarongs for daily use, were never considered treasure by the local population, hence not even offered for sale to treasure hunters. Most were simply worn till they were little more than shreds. (See image below of laundered workaday sarongs hung out to dry.) As a result they are now more rare than the precious and respected, hence always eagerly collected kewatek méan with its associations of wealth and power, and it can take years to find one in good condition.
        If we have been guilty of 'treasure hunting', it is of the hunt for rare examples. As a result we can now show pieces with less than a handful of cognates, some of them probably unique, that shed light on traditions and techniques that are fading from view, and in many cases even from memory.


Worn to shreds... Laundry in Solor and Alor archipelago, early 1980s. Mind you, these are ikat textiles that people cared enough about to wash. Still, even with our non-elitist philosophy none of these made it to the Pusaka Collection.

'Salvage work' versus documentation of change

Among scholars, especially among the younger generation, there is growing and sometimes quite vociferous critique of the 'classical' curatorial approach of collecting as much information as possible about traditional cultures, so as to arrive at something approaching a canon of established interpretative models and the creation of an iconography along the lines of for instance Golden Age Dutch and Flemish painting with its undisputed symbolic charges of a large number of motifs. The focus, such critics claim, should not be in preserving knowledge about a 'frozen' past, but on documenting the flux, the continuous process of change, the factors driving it and the impact it has on material expression. They prefer to refer to 'tradition', or phrase their sentences in such away that we are forced to mentally add quote marks, as they feel that the whole concept of tradition is false. What we have been calling tradition is merely a snapshot: a momentary recording of something that has already changed by the time the recording is completed. They derogate the classical approach as ‘salvage work’, a pathetic attempt to grab hold of something slippery that is bound to elude us. Adherents of the new fashion would have us look primarily, not at constants - in as much as these can be isolated - but at the social and economic factors causing and shaping change, often with particular emphasis on the shifting role of women in the studied societies, and contend that much of the 'meaning' imputed to traditional motifs either was never there in the first place, or simply invented to please researchers with their western notions of fixed relationships between motif and meaning.
        While this would suit certain researchers who have been unable to get weavers to part with much information on meaning – for instance because such information was considered proprietary, sacred or taboo – this author sides with those whole feel that there is and continues to be value in inventorying what we can still recover of the significance that objects of material culture had in the past, even if the best we can hope to achieve is an incomplete picture created by the collation of fragmentary and anecdotal evidence, juxtaposition and comparison of motifs from various regions, deduction on the basis of analogies, and considered interpretation based on what we think we know of the social frameworks and mythologies of the creators of these objects.

Atypical approach

Pride or shame?

The collecting of antiques in third world countries is fraught with moral dilemmas. With our overwhelming buying power we, relatively rich people from the developed world, are taking away cultural treasures from countries where, due to the ongoing process of globalization, traditional art forms and the requisite techniques are rapidly disappearing. So what we are taking is irreplaceable.
       The positive side is, that the artifacts we take with us are likely to be better preserved than they would be in their countries of origin. This certainly applies to textiles in Indonesia, where the tropical climate and abundant insects seriously limit their chances of survival. As Ruth Barnes notes delicately in her contribution to Weaving Patterns of Life by Nabholz-Kartaschoff c.s.: "The survival of organic material in a local context is the exception rather than the norm."
       Decay aside, the country's antique treasures tend to disappear from view - even from state museums (which are full of replicas, many of them clumsy), and end up in Singapore and KL galleries, the money they brought in the pockets of the powers that be.
       So, we may feel good about saving some pieces for posterity. And we may be justifiably proud of the knowledge that helped us identify the better pieces, and make the odd 'lucky' find, which without that knowledge would not have come on our path.
       Still, it is sad to see, after 41 years of collecting, that in Indonesia itself there is little left worth collecting. A vital part of Indonesia's cultural heritage has been blown on the winds of trade, and presumably will be lost for the country forever.

It is the our conviction that this approach is neither dated nor in conflict with a view of traditions as fluid, and that future generations will be more grateful for the silver gelatin prints made of vanishing cultures in the late 19th and early 20th C. and for the numerous detailed images of ikat producing cultures made over the last five decades, incomplete or partly erroneous as they may be, than for intellectual analyses of change as the chief subject warranting study; analyses that by then will offer a student of culture little more information than sticking one’s hand in a stream of water and concluding that it flows. Fortunately the proponents of classical anthropology and ethnology have not been defeated yet, and have substantial influence on the way most museums build and document their collections.
       Our concept is atypical for private collectors and most museum collections that were iniatiated after the end of the colonial period; rather, it is equivalent to that of older ethnological museums such as Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in Leyden, Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt and Rautenstrauch-Joest in Cologne. Our aim is to show, on the one hand, the interwovenness of the styles of neighbouring island regions, and on the other the astounding degree of individuality and idiosyncrasy. It allows us to see not just the people's finery, but also their workaday attire - the full spectrum of the archipelago's wealth of ikat styles.
       Over the last few years we have been incrementally 'ageing' the Pusaka Collection: a few younger pieces made room for older ones - an ongoing process. This is a conscious scholarly choice. A collection rich in older pieces allows us to look deeper back into time, to a more remote past - knowledge of which is scarcer, hence cries out more to be pursued.
       Any new acquisitions are likely to be from the colonial period or 1950s at the latest. These do not all need to be stunning masterpieces that turn everyone's eyes, though these are embraced with passion. Some can be less than perfect, or in poor condition, worn out by a long life - as long as they have a powerful presence, and are representative of a particular style, adding crucial elements to a mosaical panorama of ikat in the archipelago, rich and detailed.
       We want not the individual cloths to be the visual - we want the collection to be the visual. The way a landscape is painted in brush strokes. It is a large canvas, so it will take some time to fill in all the details, but we have left the stage of a sketch behind us.
       Atypical for a private collection is also that it is widely shared. This runs counter to the attitude most common among collectors, namely to shield the pieces from the public eye. We feel that 'hoarding' is a paradigm from the past, and that 'sharing' is more appropriate to our time. So feel free here to enjoy, to learn, and to pass on.

©Peter ten Hoopen, 2018. All rights reserved.