Fifteen active and ten dormant volcanoes form the spine of Flores. Some 1.8 million people live in the dramatic ravines between the peaks that rise from the mountain’s shoulders and fall away to the coastline. Isolated from one another by the steep terrain, the people of Flores have developed numerous unique cultures with traditions, art forms and even languages that may extend no more than a few kilometres.
There are five main language groups on Flores which correspond roughly to the island’s cultural divisions. From east to west the five groups are Lamaholot from the curling eastern cape of the island, the Sikka based around the coastal city of Maumere, the Ende-Lio whose heritage includes local tribes and Muslim seafarers, the Ngada who are centred in the mountains around Bajawa, and the Manggarai – the most populous group at the island’s western end.
These groups contain subdivisions, distinguished by language, religion, social structure, music and architecture, and by the reach of modern influence. Some communities are reconciling traditional and modern culture in innovative ways. But the island’s remoteness also conceals societies that are almost untouched by the outside forces shaping the rest of the country, and continue to develop along trajectories set hundreds of years ago.
Traditional textiles have as many uses, meanings, and interpretations as there are families and villages. A textile can be used for everyday wear, or be so sacred that it is almost never seen. It can contain subtle coded information about the class, clan, village or kingdom of the person who wears it. Its motifs can combine modern innovations with Dutch flowers, geometric patterns from 16th century Indian trade cloths and designs attributed to the ancestors.
Leonardus Wou Kurry was a cultural enthusiast, committed to reviving stories and myths related to Bajawan textiles. Leo commissioned this textile after making the arduous trek to another area of Ngada called Lopijo where he spent time talking to weavers and cultural leaders. When he returned to his own village he was inspired to integrate a pattern he had seen in Lopijo, the buku tewu into this lawo woman’s sarong.
Leonardus prepared eighty synthetic dyed textiles with this motif for dancers to wear during the planting ceremony (reba). Shortly after this Leonardus became very ill and, despite consulting several doctors, was not recovering. Eventually he saw a paranormal who told him his sickness was caused by using a motif from Lopijo without permission. Keeping this in mind, Leo completed the lawo textile seen here, after which a purification ceremony (kelanino) was performed to purify him and obtain blessings from the ancestor – which restored his health.
The traditional lawo butu beaded sarongs are sacred to the people of Bajawa. Rarely seen, they are only worn by female clan elders during dances to bless a new clan house or ngadhu ancestral shrine. Sewn into a tube, a lawo butu is worn high, under the arm-pits with the top of the tube fastened front-to-back over the shoulders by a series of ties. Gathered at the back, the body of the sarong is cinched in at the waist with a sash. If an old Lawo butu is too timeworn to wear it will be draped over the shoulder instead. Should the textile become unusable the clan leader will commission a new piece from an appropriately gifted weaver.
The central beaded motif in most lawo butu is either a boat or a series of ancestral figures. The boat, called a kowa in Bajawan, relates to a myth concerning the migration of the Bajawan people to Flores from the far west.
Lawo kapa is a three-part textile sewn into a tube and worn by a woman in the village of Nggela. This textile is considered to be a new creation. Kapa refers to a ship and may be called a lawo kapa ria as a large ship or kapa lo’o as a small ship. This type of textile with the small or large ship motif was first created by Nenek (grandmother) Toja seven to eight generations ago.
Lawo Singi One is a three-part textile sewn into a tube and worn by a woman of the Lio-Ende ethnic group. The name refers to the structure of the cloth; in that the central motif has bands around the central motif.
Lipa is the name for a man’s dress sarong. There are two types of man’s sarongs; lipa merak matan pitu which is a simple striped textile. The lipa merak loen peten is predominantly red and contains a weft ikat motif. The word lipa likely comes from the Indonesian word lipat which means “to fold” and is a reference to the checkered, folded commercially made textiles made in Sulawesi and sold throughout Indonesia.
The traditional shoulder cloth for a man is called Lu’e. It usually has very subtle bands of white ikat dashes and often horse motifs in bands on the cloth. The textile was dyed all dark blue which is typical of Ngadha textiles.