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Detail of Pua Kumbu', Buah Penyandih Ngelaicirca early 20th century, Baleh river area, Sarawak, handspun cotton, natural dyes, 93” x 54”

‘Woven Power’ Exhibit To Highlight Artistry and Meaning of Complex Asian Textiles

Extensive private collection to be seen for the first time

at the Cantor Art Gallery

The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross will present the exhibition “Woven Power: Ritual Textiles of Sarawak and West Kalimantan,” curated by anthropology professor emeritus Susan Rodgers. The exhibition will be on display from Wednesday, Aug. 31 – Wednesday, Dec. 14. A lecture by Rodgers and students who participated in summer 2016 research for the project will be held Sept. 7, from 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. in Rehm Library and a reception will follow from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the Cantor Art Gallery.

The textiles featured in the exhibition are from the private collection of John G. Kreifeldt, a professor emeritus in Tufts University’s engineering department. Over decades Kreifeldt has amassed a comprehensive representation of textiles from Borneo known as ‘pua kumbu,’ ‘sungkit’ wraps, and ‘kain kebat’ ceremonial skirts. These intricately dyed, hand-loomed cotton textiles were once woven on back strap looms as religious objects par excellence by the Iban and related Dayak women, who were seen as great experts and highly skilled natural dye producers during the 19th century to early 20th century. The exhibition will focus on textiles from Sarawak and West Kalimantan woven from the 1800s to 1940, when they were still used as ritual objects and were said to be full of powerful spirit forces. Pua were designed to be beautiful in order to attract the attention of the gods and invite them to draw near to human ceremonies, or ‘gawai.’

According to Roger Hankins, director of the Cantor Art Gallery, “The “Woven Power” exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some truly remarkable textiles, as John Kreifeldt’s collection has never been exhibited beyond a few individual textiles. It also enables us to get a glimpse into the culture that created them through Prof. Rodgers’ and her students’ research.”

Since the 1910s pervasive, on-going economic modernization and the conversion of villagers to world religions have pushed these textiles to become mainly secular objects, such as family heirlooms. The cloths are still woven today, but through changed ideological contexts. Because of their complex designs and aesthetic magnificence, pua are now prime components of international art collections, and are being ‘revived’ by local and international non-profits that work with village women weavers.

Rodgers, who retired in spring 2016 after a 27-year teaching career at the College, travelled in June and July to Indonesia and Malaysia with students Megan Demit ’16, Melissa Gryan ‘18, Margaret MacMullin ‘16, and Martina Umunna ‘18 to learn what influences pua production today, and how the old cloths are perceived by modern Iban. They spent three weeks in Bali, Indonesia and in Kuching, Sarawak studying natural dye processes, visiting non-profit cloth revival organizations, and interviewing weavers to better understand current markets. Students’ research yielded a brochure, documentary videos and photographs, and prepared them to serve as docents for the exhibition.

The students’ travel and research expenses were funded through Holy Cross’ Summer Research Program, which enables students and faculty to work jointly on original research during a nine-week period from May through July.

Kreifeldt will also give a lecture on Sept. 21 at Holy Cross called “A Collector’s Journey,” which will highlight the qualities that drew him to these textiles and how his collection evolved over many years

A catalogue of fieldwork-based anthropological essays by Rodgers will accompany the exhibition, along with a separate catalogue of ‘biographies’ written for each textile included in the exhibition, which is authored by Kreifeldt.

EVENTS

  • “Woven Power: Ritual Textiles of Sarawak and West Kalimantan” exhibit opening,  Aug. 31,
    10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
    • Cantor Art Gallery (http://www.holycross.edu/iris-and-b-gerald-cantor-art-gallery)
       
  • “Seeing Pua Kumbu, Seeing Kain Kebat: Anthropological and Historical Ways to Interpret Iban and Ibanic Ritual Textiles” opening lecture by Susan Rodgers and student docents Megan Demit ’16, Melissa Gryan ’18, Maggie MacMullin ’16, and Martina Umunna ‘18 – Sept. 7, 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
    • Rehm Library
       
  • Opening reception – Sept. 7, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
    • Cantor Art Gallery
       
  • “A Collector’s Journey,” lecture by John G. Kreifeldt, professor emeritus, Tufts University – Sept. 21, 4:30 – 5:20 p.m.
    • Beaven Hall, room 125

 

GALLERY TALK SCHEDULE

Wednesday, September 28 @ 12 to 12:50 p.m.
A Sight for the Gods: Iban and Dayak Textiles as Theology
Susan Rodgers, Emerita Anthropology Professor, College of the Holy Cross

Iban ritual textiles from Sarawak, Malaysia, were once conceptualized as lovely material objects that appealed to the gods, in pre-conversion times. According to textile scholar Cornelia Vogelshanger, cloths of the sort shown in Woven Power were once made, in part, to lure the unseen gods to draw near to human gawai festivals, once held in Iban longhouses. Conversion to Christianity starting in the 1860s changed a great deal about this older 'material theology,' which had deep ties to chanted epics. This informal gallery walk-through tour of Woven Power introduces visitors to some of the hidden religious dimensions of this complex cloth-scape.

Tuesday, October 4 @ 11:30 to Noon
Gendered Textiles: Feminine Powers and Masculine Powers in Iban and Dayak Cloths
Susan Rodgers, Emerita Anthropology Professor, College of the Holy Cross

Until very recently, the production of ritual textiles in Sarawak and West Kalimantan was thought to be an inherently feminine undertaking – a veritable 'woman's warpath' counterposed to men's ritual violence.  Much has changed in Iban and Dayak gender worlds over the last 100 years, as the sort of ritual cloths shown in Woven Power have transitioned from holy objects to heritage art. This informal gallery walk through tour will explore these themes in relation to several of the great textiles shown in the exhibition.

Monday, October 17 @ Noon – 12:30 p.m.
Iban Art – The Shock of the Different
John G. Kreifeldt, Emeritus Engineering Professor, Tufts University

Iban art lies largely outside the comfortable and largely unconscious predilections and boundaries of Western art with its centuries of realism and mimesis, vanishing points, perspectives, light and shadow, subject matter, etc. Although much Iban art can be enjoyed at the surface level, deeper appreciation requires a certain amount of perceptual and aesthetic reorientation by the viewer. Because “storytelling” via art remains a universal love in any culture, this tour/talk will concentrate on three works (“tiangs” or “ritual poles”) and the love affair of Keling and Kumang as an introduction to the Iban weltanschauung and as a bridge for insights into the others. The goal of this talk is the enhancement of enjoyment as much as an introduction to a very foreign culture and its art.

Friday, November 4 @ Noon – 12:30 p.m.
Technique, Style, and Imagery 

John G. Kreifeldt, Emeritus Engineering Professor, Tufts University

Westerners have strongly held notions of what constitutes “ART” relegating all else, if purposefully made, to “crafts”, or to such qualified “art” as Folk Art, Outsider Art, Native American Art, etc. Westerns have a particular difficulty in accepting textiles (“Woven Art”) as ART or in understanding their importance in nonwestern cultures. However, all can appreciate and enjoy the technique, and ultimately the skill, evident in well “crafted” works. Such appreciation can serve to take us further into the art. This tour/talk will examine the materials and the different weaving techniques as influencing styles as well as cost issues. The goal of this talk is to broaden the appreciation and understanding of Iban art through a basic knowledge of the weaving techniques and skills used for imaging.

Tuesday, November 15, Noon – 12:50 p.m.
Textile Exhibition Planning and Execution
Roger Hankins, Director, Cantor Art Gallery

What does it take to mount a textile exhibition, and what are the many elements that factored into the successful presentation of the historic textiles of Woven Power? Roger Hankins and contributors to the exhibition will discuss the planning process and what it took to put the exhibition together.

Thursday, December 1 @ 11:30 – noon
When Is a Leech Not a Leech? On Avoiding Misinterpretation of Ibanic Ritual Textiles
Susan Rodgers, Emerita Anthropology Professor, College of the Holy Cross

Iban and Dayak ritual textiles are often full to bursting with intriguing motifs, ranging from mythical creatures to spirits to demons to firefly swarms that blink on and off in the tropical forest. Interpreting what these motifs 'mean' has been a recurrent obsession among Western observers of Ibanic ceremonial cloth – yet this whole endeavor may be bogus. This informal Gallery walk-through tour introduces visitors to specific textiles in the Woven Power exhibition whose semantics are elusive – deliberately so, on the part of the weavers.

Wednesday, December 7 @ 2 – 2:30 p.m.
Motifs and Meaning, Imagery and Association (But what does it mean?)
John G. Kreifeldt, Emeritus Engineering Professor, Tufts University

The original “meaning” of Iban woven art is elusive as it resided completely with the artist and rarely survived being orally passed down over the generations.  “What exactly does it mean?” is therefore likely unanswerable.  However, it is reasonable that well known imagery evoked well known associations so that the more pertinent question is: “What does it mean to you?” We will consider several such associations as an aid to “understanding” this art. The goal of this talk is to enhance the appreciation of Iban art and culture through consideration of possible associations evoked by the imagery.

All textiles from the collection of John G. Kreifeldt
All images by Frank E. Graham