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The textiles of Sumba (an island in eastern Indonesia) represents the means by which the present generation passes on its messages to future generations. The pieces are deeply personal, follow distinct systematic form but show the individuality of the weaver and the village from which they are produced. Internationally, Sumba's textiles are collected as examples of the highest quality textile design and are found in the major museums of the world as well as the home's of collectors. One hundred years ago the Dutch were already exporting textiles from the island of Sumba. Today great numbers are still produced by a relatively small number of women, mainly on the eastern coastal districts of the island. These cloths are made not only for export out of Sumba, but also for trade with people from the interior for ritual use, where by custom the process of ikat was forbidden.
Since textiles are the products of Sumba women, they are understood as the tangible representations of the female element of the bipartite universe. On Sumba this male-female complementarity is encapsulated in the notion of the Highest Being who is the Father Sun-Mother Moon and the Creator/Weaver of human life. The Sumbanese believe a person is able to acquire the special powers and qualities of certain creatures when textiles displaying such motifs are worn. Although different cloths are appropriate apparel for men and women, textiles are seen collectively as a female component of their cosmos. Cloth is a symbol of the woman's family, the wife givers, who are ritually superior on ceremonial occasions. In ritual exchanges textiles are a prominent part of reciprocal gift for male objects such as metal, buffalo and ivory from the man's family, whose burden in gift giving is heavier because of the inferior status of the wife taker to that of the wife giver. is Textiles on Sumba are both clothing and the currency of traditional ceremonial exchange: Many fine folded cloths must be presented at each marriage as part of a counter-payment for a bride wealth paid in horses, buffalo, and gold, and at each funeral as a sign of mourning and later also a counter-payment for animals contributed to the slaughter. Cloth is also given to show that a contract is binding ("you sign your name when you accept the cloth"), as a kind of "interest payment" to ask for more time to discharge a debt, and as a gesture of thanks for a kindness extended long ago and never reciprocated. Cloth in this sense is counted; its value is estimated on the basis of its materials, workmanship, and design, and its relative worth in relation to the livestock traded for it. These estimations place indigo dyed cloths at higher rank than those made with commercial dyes, place hand-spun thread ahead of store-bought threads,and overall value labor-intensive techniques of supplementary we! and ikat dyeing over simpler and faster designs.
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