Sacred Ikat: From Heirloom to Trade documents the stories behind the development of the weaving and lifestyle of the people of Sumba. It proudly examines the balance between aesthetics, and practicality which resulted in the weaving of pride and prestige. The tradition of weaving ikat in Sumba goes back to the myth of creation and the origin of the people of Sumba. Not only do ikat serve a purpose as clothing, but they are also a means of communication. They carry complex meanings of status, wealth, and power. They constitute a way to communicate with the world of the dead and hence play an essential role in funerals, as well as in most ceremonies.
Sumba, one of the few non-volcanic islands in the Indonesian archipelago, is situated 400 km. southeast of Bali, in East Nusa Tenggara province. The tiny island, with an area of 11,153 sq.km., is divided into two regencies: East Sumba and West Sumba. The two offer contrasting sceneries during the rainy season: East Sumba still displaying an arid landscape of wide savannas where the famed sandalwood horses can be seen grazing, and only a few greener valleys that enable rice cultivation, West Sumba bearing luxuriant vegetation on green hills topped by characteristic citadel-like villages. The rainy season is quite short (December to March), which contributes to a problematically insufficient water supply all over the island.
Sumba is home to close to 700,000 people split into nine ethnic groups, the dominant group, the Kambera, living in East Sumba. Despite this diversity, the Sumbanese believe themselves to come from the same ancestors and there are many similarities in the social structure and languages of the nine ethnic groups.
Long before the first European set foot on Sumba in the 16th century, Sumba was already known to Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian traders as Sandalwood Island (Pulau Cendana). The remoteness, the hostile and arid environment of the island, long shielded Sumba from foreign influences. Nonetheless, there were some people from the neighboring islands of Savu, Flores, and Lombok, and farther away from Java and Sumatra, who came to settle on Sumba. All had something to contribute to the culture of the area where they ended up living.
Sumba’s isolation was exacerbated by another factor: frequent wars raging between the many villages, forcing the clans to find refuge in fortified villages perched atop hills. The fierce Sumbanese warriors would go on headhunting expeditions, either as reprisal or for land conquest; the severed heads were considered war trophies and exhibited on the andungu, the skull-trees set in the village square in front of the chief’s house. Capturing slaves for the village or for trade was also a good reason to launch an attack against a nearby village; slaves were an important source of labour and a clan’s prestige, in addition to income.
Make of the early trade was probably carried out through the nearby larger island of Timor. Through this trade, many foreign objects made their way to Sumba and became an inspiration for the motifs on ikat textiles. Sumba would provide sandalwood and sandal ponies in exchange for ceramics, gold and silver, and silk cloth (in particular the Indian patola). The Europeans did not settle on the island until early in the 20th century when the Dutch embarked on a campaign to pacify the island, part of a larger plan to bring yet-unsettled areas of the archipelago under control.
In 1945, the island became part of the newly proclaimed Republic of Indonesia. Today, Sumba still struggles with issues of poverty and, despite efforts made by the government to raise the standard of living of the Sumbanese people, life outside the main cities remains very much unchanged.
The people continue to rely largely on agriculture and animal husbandry, while weaving provides additional earnings and, aside from the annual pasola celebration, is the focus of tourist visits to the island. Sumba has earned an international reputation for its weavings which are exhibited in major museums around the world.