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Indonesian Fabrics Offer Glimpse Into Life of Obama’s Mother

A new display of Indonesian fabrics offers a glimpse into the life of Ann Dunham: weaver, arts collector, activist and mother of President Barack Obama.

In the exhibit, “A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks,— the Textile Museum showcases 15 pieces from Dunham’s personal collection.

All the batiks hang on the walls or lay draped around stands in a small back room of the museum. They have been passed down to Dunham’s daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is lending them to the museum through the Indonesian Embassy. For a mother about whom so little is known, these fabrics offer a good look into the life and culture Dunham experienced in Indonesia in the 1960s and 1970s.

While living on the Indonesian island of Java with her husband at the time, Lolo Soetoro, Dunham started to collect Javanese batiks, which the museum describes as “fabrics patterned by using a wax-resistant process.— Batiks were common in Java during those years.

Mattiebelle Gittinger, curator for this exhibit, says she heavily researched Ann Dunham and her batik collection. “Every one of these [batiks] tells a story about Ann Dunham.— The exhibit is a clear reflection of the personal aspect to this collection with some of the wall panels explaining how much Dunham would have enjoyed certain colors, patterns or pieces in the exhibit. “She loved it,— Gittinger said, referring to the culture of textiles and batiks that has been an important tradition in Indonesia.

Having been a weaver herself, Dunham clearly found herself enthralled with the vibrant patterns and colors of the pieces. Different combinations of patterns and colors fill every inch of the fabrics. Most of the pieces on display are kain panjangs — long, rectangular cloths usually wrapped around the lower body like a sarong. Gittinger explained that each traditional pattern has a specific meaning; some are meant for couples getting married, while others bring good fortune.

The process of creating these incredible intricate designs involves a canting, a tool that allows the artist to control a flow of wax and draw designs on the fabric as if with a pen. The fabric is dyed and the parts covered by the wax are protected and left the original color of the fabric. This process is repeated until the final design is complete.

According to the Textile Museum, Dunham became involved in the lives of the craftsmen and women as well as in the batiks themselves. After leaving Indonesia and moving back to Hawaii, Dunham was involved with the Ford Foundation and USAID, helping create projects that benefited poor craftswomen. Gittinger noted, “She excelled in understanding little people.—

The 15 elaborate and eclectic fabrics that decorate the small room in the Textile Museum invite the viewer to get to know the president’s mother as something else: a collector, a weaver, an artist and an activist. Now visitors to the museum can share in her enthusiasm and get to know the president’s family in a new way.

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