Fabrics of Our Lives: Obama’s Mother’s Collection at the Textile Museum

BY Arts Desk  August 18, 2009 at 3:04 PM EDT

How do our clothes and other fabrics tell the trajectory of our lives? One woman’s answer is now on display in a special two-week exhibit at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. ‘A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks’ showcases some of Ann Dunham’s collection of batik fabrics from the 1960s and ’70s that she acquired while living in Indonesia.

Dunham’s first extended stay came in the 1960s after marrying President Obama’s step-father, Lolo Soetoro, a native Indonesian and fellow student at the University of Hawaii. Though she left Indonesia when her daughter Maya, the president’s half-sister, was very young, she would return several times to the region, later as an anthropologist studying blacksmiths in Java, finishing research and field work on the local culture for her 800-page dissertation (earning her Ph.D. several years before her death at age 52 in 1995). During that time, Dunham witnessed the vibrant elements of a traditional craft culture in danger of extinction. She went on to be a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, helping set up a village microfinance program. She later became a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta specializing in women’s work.

Batik is a traditional Javanese textile craft, where wax is applied to fabric with either a drawing tool or a stamp, and then dyed again and again, leaving a design after the wax is melted away. The more complex and time-consuming work of hand applying the wax by writing on the fabric is almost exclusively done by women, and the less-rigorous work of stamping designs (a more modern innovation) is done by men. Today, and since the 1970s, many batik-like patterns have been created by silkscreen instead of by hand, but the artisanal tradition in Indonesia still continues.

Batik slide show[Watch a slide show of pieces from Ann Dunham’s collection and see a batik artist demonstrating the craft]

In a craft cultivated mainly by women, it’s not surprising that its patterns, design and colors reflect the course of women’s lives. The different colors signify the different cardinal directions, and also the age and status of the woman wearing it: red signifies the south and is appropriate for daughters or brides, white signifies the east and is found on garments for pregnant women. As they get older, their garments become more intricate and layered: there are combinations of red, blue and black for mothers, whereas grandmother’s fabric is red with patterns dyed over in blue and black. In another tradition, one cloth would last a woman an entire lifetime: the lighter half would be worn during the first half of life, and the reverse, the darker side, during a woman’s later years.

Though Dunham did cut up batiks to make into garments, the pieces on display at the Textile Museum are whole and show no signs of wear, suggesting she probably stored them rather than use or display them.

Tri Asayani demonstrates batik patterningOutside, in the courtyard of the Textile Museum on a recent Sunday, Tri Asayani, a third-generation batik maker and a 29-year old mother, sits in the shade out of the sweltering D.C. heat. Perched on the ground with a pot, she dips in her canting, a drawing tool shaped like a hawk talon, until the attached thimble-sized vessel is full of molten wax. She deftly traces beautiful swooping designs onto the fabric draped over her lap. The fabric has already been dyed multiple times and will go through several more iterations. Asayani says some fabrics take her a week to make, others up to a month. Batik making is the primary business for Asayani’s family, a trade passed down to her by her father, which she plans to pass down to her 2-year-old daughter eventually.

In a 2008 profile of Dunham, her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng told the New York Times that her mom “felt that somehow, wandering through uncharted territory, we might stumble upon something that will, in an instant, seem to represent who we are at the core.” This exhibit helps make part of Dunham’s life tangible to visitors, showing that the actual fabrics she collected (the same type she often wore) were highly connected to the spirit and focus of her academic and professional work in microfinance and the preservation of rural cultures, and who the president’s mother was at her core.