“I remembered what my father always said: ‘Never leave the land of your great grandfathers, and develop it for a good cause,” Alfonsa Horeng recalls. “That local wisdom was what convinced me to leave my career in the big city of Surabaya and return home to develop Flores”. And developing this area in the Nita district of Sikka regency in Indonesia is clearly what Alfonsa is achieving.
In 2003, she established the Lepo Lorun (House of Weaving) Weaving Cooperative. Contacting about 800 women from seventeen villages, she injected new life into the traditional art of making tenun ikat, a method of weaving that uses pre-dyed thread to create patterns. “I wanted to develop what we already have without taking away the traditional values,” she said, adding that each village has its characteristic tenun ikat patterns, either character or symbols, that set them apart and tell the story and philosophy of the people of Flores.
Many take for granted the work of elderly Kampung women who spend their lives weaving traditional ikat cloths. “Many people perceive these women as nobodies, and what they do as nothing,” says Alfonsa. “But our traditions, in the hands of these women, have been preserved.”
Natural Dyes and Other Obstacles She has faced many obstacles along the way—convincing the women to continue to weave when they could do something else to earn a living; inspiring young women to learn the art even though it’s not fashionable to do so; and to reintroduce the use of natural dyes to create ikat of a higher value. From Alfonsa, “I had heard so much about how our great grandmothers used to make natural dyes from plants such as mango, mengkudu [noni], indigo and turmeric. So I thought, why not revive this knowledge? We can benefit from what we already have around us, and contribute to the environment at the same time.”
With tenun ikat becoming increasingly popular, Alfonsa says it’s important not to forget the artist behind the work. “It is sad to hear people refer to them as artisans instead of maestros. The same goes for all maestros all over Indonesia who are labeled as artisans. Anyone with skills, be it in making tenun ikat, traditional musical instruments, should be called a maestro. The women weavers of Flores are maestros from the time they are very young until the day they die.”
Alfonsa Needs Your Help If you want to meet Alfonsa and learn more about the cooperative, as well as an opportunity to purchase these exquisite ikats, she is scheduled to speak at the Textile Society of America symposium this September in Washington D.C. But she needs your help to cover her travel expenses to Washington DC. I was honored to sponsor Alfonsa at the Santa Fe Folk Art Festival in 2011. I’d love to see her return to the United States to participate in this important symposium.
*Thanks to Alfonsa Horeng for providing information and images for this post.*