Lau Pahudu (Woman’s skirt)

Sumba Island, Nusa Tenggara

Not on view

This is an exceptional example of a lau pahudu from East Sumba in the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia. Textiles play a crucial cosmological role within the Sumbanese community, not only denoting status and rank but also reinforcing the spiritual armature of an individual during life and death. They were also extremely valuable items in terms of exchange. Paired with hinggi (men’s ceremonial hip cloths), assemblages of important textiles were often transferred between families during marriage exchanges. Lau is the general term for a traditional tubular textile worn by Sumbanese women for ceremonial occasions. Turned down an appropriate length, it is worn either skirt-like as a sarong or wrapped around the body with the top of the tube gathered around the chest and held in place under the left arm. Lau pahudu refers to a tubular sarong with supplementary warp patterning in the lower panel. Finely executed supplementary warp patterning is a signature technique which indicates the high status and social ranking of the weaver who created these valuable cloths to be worn on important ceremonial occasions. Woven from handspun and commercially spun cotton, the top section of this piece has a foundation of a rich brown color and incorporates bands of contrasting colors. These linear strips feature thin vertical bands in white, each with a long running border which is picked out in red or orange. The upper half of the textile is kept fairly simple in terms of design as it is not seen while the skirt is being worn. The lower half of the skirt is more elaborate and features iconography that represents ancestor figures and a motif that represents the ‘tree of life’ which is shown alternating across the width of the textile. The individual design elements of textiles perform practical functions and the qualities associated with each motif enhance the wearer’s personal power during life and upon death, assistance them in their journey to the ancestral realm. In this example, a series of ancestral figures are woven in white with a lighter taupe color used to highlight facial features (eyes, ears, mouth and nose) as well as details of the body (breasts, navel and genitals). The lines shown within the chest area denote the inner ribs using a style which is common in the representation of figures. This ‘x-ray’ style connotes the potent shamanic vision of ritual experts who can penetrate the surface of the skin and observe the inner workings of the body revealed. Roosters perch on each of the side branches of the central tree of life; flourishing tendrils curl out from the trunk and the outer branches of the tree symbolizing fertility and abundance. The base of each tree is shown balanced on water, creating waves that ripple outwards, and flanked at each side by a small, flat fish depicted upright. Fish and other aquatic creatures are associated with the underworld and revered ancestors manifest themselves in fish, especially plaice, which are a species not eaten by the Sumbanese. These references are appropriate as a way to reference the ancestral underworld and reinforce a strong spiritual connection, activated when the textile is worn by noble women during ritual or ceremonial occasions. Indeed, the term pahudu is derived from the verb hudu (which means ‘to land, to fish, to catch in a net’) which gives pahudu, meaning something that has been ‘landed or caught.’ This terminology is appropriate in signifying the idea that these cosmological associations are somehow ‘caught’ and now woven into the body of the textile, creating a spiritual armature for the wearer. Operating across multiple domains of land, sky and ocean, decorative bands above and beneath the central panel add to the lively dynamism of this work. These incorporate simple geometric motifs which animate the piece and reflect the influence of Indian patola. Two narrow bands of a rich red color include motifs that may refer to a dragon or snake, a composite sea creature with pronounced snout and curling tail. Above is a third horizontal band that incorporates a striking design of alternate pairs of horses which flank a tree of life, this time planted firmly on the soil of the land. Each horse is shown in a dynamic stance with sharply delineated legs, an elaborate mane and open jaws with a raised tail. Horses are appropriate motifs as important symbols of wealth and prestige for noble ranking-families. These visually compelling designs of these three bandsare highlighted in a bright yellow which stands out against the bold red. The range of colors and motifs selected for a textile denotes an individual’s position in the island’s complex social hierarchy. Here, the stained yellow color--designed to imitate gilt--marks the original weaver and owner of this textile as a woman of particularly high rank, adding to the uniqueness of this example.

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