FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a superb example of Indonesian weaving from the Textiles Department. This new acquisition is not currently on display, so we hope you enjoy this virtual viewing!
The palepai (or ship cloth, as it is known to Westerners) has long been recognized as the pinnacle of Indonesian weaving. This palepai depicts two large red ships with sweeping oars and gracefully arching bowsprits and tails. The cloth is masterfully woven with finely detailed human figures, mythical creatures, birds and ancestral shrines. The rich color palette combined with the intricate composition of the fine details makes this an exceptional example, a true masterpiece of textile design.
For Indonesians inhabiting the archipelago of 13,000 islands, the sea represents their lifeblood, and ship imagery reflects their social structure, ritual life and cosmological belief system. The ship as a recurring theme in their ritual arts can be seen as a spirit boat safely guiding the agent from one stage in life to another. In the Lampung region of Sumatra, ship imagery predominates their woven arts, reaching its height with the palepai, the most prestigious of all their textiles. The multi-layered or stratified decks lend themselves to multiple interpretations—a representation of the upper and lower worlds, a ledger of ancestry or a reflection of their social hierarchy.
Indonesian aristocrats were the exclusive owners of palepai and hung them at rituals such as engagements, marriages, births, circumcisions and funerals. This cloth would have been used in a marriage ceremony, with each of the double-red ships representing each clan. In the marriage rites, a single-ship palepai would replace the double-ship cloth to symbolically represent the merging of the two clans.
In 1883, the eruption of Krakatau in the Sunda Strait generated a tsunami that destroyed 165 villages and towns, including the town of Kalianda and during the Japanese occupancy of Indonesia in World War II, many cloths were cut apart to make clothing, making high-quality palepai cloths, such as this one, extremely rare.