A small hut made out of sago palm leaves led to the entrance of the Rumah Dua8 gallery, where an exhibition of traditional textiles featured in Oscar Lawalata’s latest collection was being held.
Inside the gallery, four elderly women sat on straw mats, their heads bowed over pieces of fabric, wrinkled hands adeptly tying knots and weaving threads. They were making ikat , a handwoven textile from East Nusa Tenggara, which was showcased during the just concluded exhibition, “Aku, Ikat, Mereka dan Kami” (“Me, Ikat, Them and Us”), which ran from March 27 to April 3.
“I’ve arranged the exhibition as a journey for visitors to experience the unique cultural riches of East Nusa Tenggara,” Oscar said during the opening.
The 33-year-old Jakarta designer is well known for designs that celebrate traditional textiles, such as ikat, batik and songket .
His handmade collections, which integrate traditional with contemporary designs, have given him an edge in the niche market of culture-based fashion houses in Hong Kong, Japan, Britain and the United States.
At the three-story gallery in Kemang, South Jakarta, more than 100 ikat weavings were on display, showcasing textiles from the six main islands of East Nusa Tenggara — Timor, Rote, Flores, Savu, Alor and Sumba.
The first floor featured ikat textiles from the islands of Timor and Rote, distinguished by intricate geometrical patterns and dark colors, such as red, indigo and black, and produced from natural dyes derived from tropical herbs and spices found in the region.
The red dye, for example, is made from the leaves of the Mengkudu tree and the indigo dye from the leaves of the Nila tree. To absorb the colors, cotton and silk fibers are sometimes left to soak in the dye for days, creating the rich, dark hues.
The intricate motifs depict traditional local beliefs, as well as influences from foreign traders. The Uskenat tribe of North Biboki village on Timor Island, for example, describes the greatness of God by incorporating patterns of striking thunder in its ikat weavings. The elaborate geometrical patterns from Rote, on the other hand, mirror the Indian patola motif used in some sari designs.
“Women usually weave the ikat in their spare time,” said Victoria Nanggula, one of the weavers from Rote, who has been working with Oscar for five years. “When it’s finished, they usually keep it in their wardrobes for special occasions or they give it away to guests who come to their house.”
The gallery’s second floor showcased ikat from the islands of Flores, Savu and Alor. The brown, blue, black and white textiles featured motifs depicting daily activities and plant and animal life.
“Some of the floral patterns were copied from the embroidery books of the Dutch who occupied the island,” Oscar explained.
Ikat from Sumba occupied the gallery’s third floor. Here, the patterns were larger and rich in symbolism representing local traditions and values, like the andungu katalingu (three skulls) motif that symbolizes courage, heroism and triumph. The tiana (ark) pattern represents teamwork and unity in facing obstacles. Other motifs included the tau (human), representing protection from the ancestors, njara (horse) to signify the high social status of the wearer and the ruha (rooster), a symbol of power and masculinity.
“The patterns are very unique and elegant,” said Arti S Usman, secretary general of the Women’s Foundation, who visited the exhibition. “Who would have thought that people who live in remote villages in East Nusa Tenggara could produce such attractive fashion items?”
Oscar said that he wanted to present the fabrics in their original state before they were cut and sewn into clothes. “Without the cutting and stitches, guests can fully appreciate the beauty of ikat’s intricate motifs,” Oscar said.
Information on Ikat