‘Woven Power’ Exhibit To Highlight Artistry and Meaning of Complex Asian Textiles

Extensive private collection to be seen for the first time at the Cantor Art Gallery

The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross will present the exhibition “Woven Power: Ritual Textiles of Sarawak and West Kalimantan,” curated by anthropology professor emeritus Susan Rodgers. The exhibition will be on display from Wednesday, Aug. 31 – Wednesday, Dec. 14. A lecture by Rodgers and students who participated in summer 2016 research for the project will be held Sept. 7, from 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. in Rehm Library and a reception will follow from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the Cantor Art Gallery.

The textiles featured in the exhibition are from the private collection of John G. Kreifeldt, a professor emeritus in Tufts University’s engineering department. Over decades Kreifeldt has amassed a comprehensive representation of textiles from Borneo known as ‘pua kumbu,’ ‘sungkit’ wraps, and ‘kain kebat’ ceremonial skirts. These intricately dyed, hand-loomed cotton textiles were once woven on back strap looms as religious objects par excellence by the Iban and related Dayak women, who were seen as great experts and highly skilled natural dye producers during the 19th century to early 20th century. The exhibition will focus on textiles from Sarawak and West Kalimantan woven from the 1800s to 1940, when they were still used as ritual objects and were said to be full of powerful spirit forces. Pua were designed to be beautiful in order to attract the attention of the gods and invite them to draw near to human ceremonies, or ‘gawai.’

According to Roger Hankins, director of the Cantor Art Gallery, “The “Woven Power” exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some truly remarkable textiles, as John Kreifeldt’s collection has never been exhibited beyond a few individual textiles. It also enables us to get a glimpse into the culture that created them through Prof. Rodgers’ and her students’ research.”

Since the 1910s pervasive, on-going economic modernization and the conversion of villagers to world religions have pushed these textiles to become mainly secular objects, such as family heirlooms. The cloths are still woven today, but through changed ideological contexts. Because of their complex designs and aesthetic magnificence, pua are now prime components of international art collections, and are being ‘revived’ by local and international non-profits that work with village women weavers.

Rodgers, who retired in spring 2016 after a 27-year teaching career at the College, travelled in June and July to Indonesia and Malaysia with students Megan Demit ’16, Melissa Gryan ‘18, Margaret MacMullin ‘16, and Martina Umunna ‘18 to learn what influences pua production today, and how the old cloths are perceived by modern Iban. They spent three weeks in Bali, Indonesia and in Kuching, Sarawak studying natural dye processes, visiting non-profit cloth revival organizations, and interviewing weavers to better understand current markets. Students’ research yielded a brochure, documentary videos and photographs, and prepared them to serve as docents for the exhibition.

The students’ travel and research expenses were funded through Holy Cross’ Summer Research Program, which enables students and faculty to work jointly on original research during a nine-week period from May through July.

Kreifeldt will also give a lecture on Sept. 21 at Holy Cross called “A Collector’s Journey,” which will highlight the qualities that drew him to these textiles and how his collection evolved over many years

A catalogue of fieldwork-based anthropological essays by Rodgers will accompany the exhibition, along with a separate catalogue of ‘biographies’ written for each textile included in the exhibition, which is authored by Kreifeldt.

Featured Events

  • “Woven Power: Ritual Textiles of Sarawak and West Kalimantan” exhibit opening, Aug. 31, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • “Seeing Pua Kumbu, Seeing Kain Kebat: Anthropological and Historical Ways to Interpret Iban and Ibanic Ritual Textiles” opening lecture by Susan Rodgers and student docents Megan Demit ’16, Melissa Gryan ’18, Maggie MacMullin ’16, and Martina Umunna ‘18 – Sept. 7, 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
    • Rehm Library

  • Opening reception – Sept. 7, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
    • Cantor Art Gallery

  • “A Collector’s Journey,” lecture by John G. Kreifeldt, professor emeritus, Tufts University – Sept. 21, 4:30 – 5:20 p.m.
    • Beaven Hall, room 125

Related events and gallery tours will occur throughout fall 2016. Updated details can be viewed on the Cantor Art Gallery’s website.

Media coverage: