Religion, Imagery, and Cloth: Lao-Tai Textile Traditions features a collection of ritual costumes and textiles made by the Tai people of Laos, which Ellison Banks Findly gave to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2013. Trained in Indological studies, Findly has been working in northern Laos, near the Vietnam border, since 2006. Her research focuses on the interplay between textile imagery and religious belief, which she studied in weaving villages where variants of Buddhism and shamanic spirit religions are practiced. The representational images found on these works of art include birds, elephants, serpents, and people. Findly’s research uncovers how these depictions also convey sacred themes and cultural memory, including Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Shamans use these objects, which hold meanings related to the human life cycle and its transformations, during healing and funerary ceremonies to attract powerful and protective spiritual forces.
The sitting cloth featured on the left is emblematic of objects carried to Buddhist temples for prayer. The central image on this piece is of a double-headed elephant, or saang. According to the weavers, the creature’s two heads represent two parents, and thus indicate fertility and birth. Small birds depicted around the central image and a serpent below also are symbols of fertility.
Symbolism is present similarly in the object featured on the right. The spiraling motifs found on this blanket represent the curling tail of pii nyak, a serpentlike deity that is referred to as “the great or evil spirit.” It is understood that when this spirit is embedded in a textile, it is transformed to provide protection to the wearer from other evil forces. The work’s pii nyak imagery may be traced to ancient Indian mythology and the naga (a Sanskrit term that refers both to an elephant and a serpent) that appear in Hindu and Buddhist iconographies. This lineage supports Findly’s theory that the Tai people had contact with Indian materials, both along the Silk Road and during the Khmer empire (802–1431), and that this influence is present in contemporary Lao-Tai textile traditions.
These objects and others are presented in the Textile Education Gallery in the de Young through July 5, 2015.