Lamak (shrine hanging or offering cloth). Bali, Indonesia, early to mid-20th century. Cotton; handwoven plain weave with supplementary warp patterning. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural history, Donated by Colin McPhee, 70.2/1153.

From the Exhibition:
Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles

Amid the riot of color, noise, and bustle that constitutes a typical Balinese Hindu temple festival, singular elements usually compete for attention by being loud and flamboyant. This modest shrine hanging (lamak) captivates the viewer by virtue of its extraordinary restraint. Not only does the care evident in its execution accentuate the time and creativity that went into making it, but the individual stylistic features of this textile also reveal the extraordinary diverse stylistic variations in ritual art on the tiny island of Bali.

Unlike many types of temple decoration made from natural materials that decompose over time, this one has been made to last. It is a permanent version of the hangings typically made from fresh palm leaves or coconut palm, which usually feature combinations of geometric patterns and representational motifs.1 Designed to drape vertically down the front of a temple shrine or altar, with the top section folded over or attached to the shelf of the shrine as an underlay for offerings, both textile and ephemeral versions provide a bridge between this world and the upper world, enabling the gods and ancestors to enjoy the offerings in the shrine when they descend to earth.

Creating hangings like this is overwhelmingly the work of women. Makers employ a range of techniques, whether plaiting or wrapping palm leaves or working with textiles, although the best-known versions of the textile lamak feature embroidery and appliqué in vivid color combinations augmented with couched metal threads and other additions such as mirror, sequins, ribbon, and metal pieces.

Collected by Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist, probably during the time he spent in Bali in the 1930s, this lamak features a hand- woven rectangular base textile in dark indigo-blue cotton with fine white stripes. Whether it was the inherent beauty of this piece or its function as an act of homage that appealed to the collector, this remarkable example of Balinese ritual art also evokes some of the other textile traditions of the Indonesian archipelago, sharing affinities with the woven hip cloths worn on neighboring Lombok and with the ceremonial textiles of South Sumatra, which are also decorated by supplementary weft-weaving techniques.

The base cloth has been decorated using a supplementary warp technique to thread the white cotton across the dark blue background. This replicates the patterns created by plaiting or weaving palm leaves. Yellow and red threads have been added along the vertical borders and along the horizontal borders in the main body of the design. The motif is entirely geometric, and the lack of any representational or figural design features is in itself quite unusual. The dominant visual motifs consist of repeating diamonds and triangle shapes. Immediately below the empty space where the cloth would sit on, or be attached to, a shrine there are two large square panels. The uppermost panel is divided diagonally into four parts to create a white hourglass shape with a small square in the center, a motif known as ibu (mother), and associated with Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth), whose fertility gives life. The panel directly below this, separated by a double border that includes a row of repeating triangles and triangles with sharp points, features the representation of a mountain (gunung) composed of small alternating dark and light triangles.

Given the strong similarities between this textile and two others now in the collection of the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands [1841-4] and the National Gallery of Australia [NGA 89.496], it is likely that this woven lamak was made by a lady called Men Nis (?-1927), who is said to have lived in Kesiman, Denpasar.2

Dr. Siobhan Campbell is a lecturer in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

1.Francine Brinkgreve has conducted extensive research on lamak, and her work should be consulted for further details on all aspects of lamak production technique, design, and motifs. See Francine Brinkgreve, Lamak. Ritual Objects in Bali (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2016).

2.Refer to Christian Pelras, ”Lamak et tissus sacrés de Bali: leur signification et leur place dans le ritual,” Objets et Mondes 7, no. 4: 255–78.