In the waning days of 2021, Bay Area art institutions offer an embarrassment of riches. There are some not-to-be-missed exhibitions currently running, but I won’t be distracted by giving into the temptation to drop names as there’s a lower profile show I’d like to shine a light on. It’s a quieter presentation of artistry from makers whose names, for the most part, we will never know. 

Weaving Stories at the Asian Art Museum assembles a display of over 45 textiles from across Southeast Asia. Most were created in the 19th and early 20th century, with the exception of a contemporary piece by artist Milla Sungkar, which captures the drama of the earthquake and tsunami  that devastated Aceh in 2004. All were woven by women; and though the older garments are unsigned works of undesignated provenance, identities are revealed through the ways in which they reveal the delicate interlace of individual identity, social status, and faith.


Archival footage and multimedia elements set the context for life in and around Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia a few hundred years ago. These island countries lay between the major China and Indian ports of exchange. That belief systems as well as goods were traded is evident in what appear to be loose attempts at Arabic caligraphy on pieces believed to be from Northern Java, a formerly Hindu and Buddist kingdom which later converted to Islam. However, to a viewer who approaches this work with the eye of an artist, rather than a scholar, it’s the graceful looping of the characters and styles that reminds one that, even within devotional works, the imagination of the individual maker can often be overtaken by the sheer lyrical joy of creation. 

A sense of wonder and curiosity is evoked throughout the show. The time commitment, attention to detail, and technical skill of these women artists is remarkable. One of the most finely executed examples is a textile of indigo batik on a bright white background. This would have been worn as a lower garment by a woman in the Chinese Indonesian community as a sign of mourning. The design is visually reminiscent of the fine blue and white decorative style widely used in Chinese porcelain, which has also inspired Islamic, Japanese, and European ceramics. Batik is a “resist” process that uses wax to prevent areas from absorbing the dye into which a whole cloth is then immersed multiple times. Usually, it is the wax that creates the details. In this case, the wax is applied to preserve the background. To achieve the nuances in tone from the blue dye and to maintain the crisp white upon which the delicate blue design of birds and flowers appears would have required immense proficiency and patience. 

Identity 2010.354 soldier batik

Also displayed are a range of beautiful blouses from the Philippines. One is decorated with a multitude of shell sequins, another is made and embellished with intricate embroidery from pineapple leaf fibers, and a particularly vibrant top displays the artist’s finesse and whimsy in employing the felted bark of a mulberry tree. Whether wrapped, worn, or draped, whether covered in flora, fauna, pattern, narrative scenes, or sacred symbols, the exhibition’s curator Natasha Reichle has been meticulous in presenting each object as an invitation not only to step back in time but to gaze into the metaphorical mirror. 

Re-examining how, with what, and why we apparel ourselves as we do at this moment in time conjures up everything from mask mandates to the impact of fast fashion on global artisans, factory workers, body image, and planetary overproduction. We can each likely find our own stories woven through the warp or weft of these textiles, either through direct threads of ancestry or ties to the many cultures that passed throught the straits, seas, and oceans inhabited by these Southeast Asian Penelopes. 

My mother was born in Malaysia in December 1941, and traveled as an infant through those waterways to arrive as a war refugee in the United Kingdom. There are only two pieces from Malaysia on display in this show. One is a ceremonial cloth of the Iban people who practice a challenging method of textile patterning known at ikat, which requires knowledge of botany and chemistry to prepare the dyes safely and properly. Myth holds that also needed are visitations in the dream state from the sisters of legend who reveal the designs to be woven. The other cloth, also from Malaysia’s Borneo Island, is perhaps the most worn textile in the show. It illustrates that the Iban people closely valued the age of a cloth. This heirloom may have passed down through many generations, as my mother’s story will pass through me to my children. Objects and the way we treat them, as with other people, can speak volumes about who we are.

It was around 20,000-30,000 years ago that ancient humans began interlacing leaves and twigs into handy objects for carrying things and keeping the elements at bay. By the time our neolithic ancestors began making tools out of stone, the creation of fabrics from the thread of plant fibers was common practice. There’s something primal, intrinsic, and universal to the practice of weaving. The weaving of sound brings us music, the weaving of words brings poetry, the weaving of cultures and experiences can enrich and expand understanding. The exhibit stirs good connections. Check it out. — Tamsin Smith

It’s open until May 2, 2022.