Sunday, July 19, 2009


(please click on the photos to enlarge)

Reading my weekly Antiques and The Arts newspaper, dated July 17, I came across a small item that thrilled me. It said that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, wove textiles for wall hangings early in her life and when she moved to Indonesia with her son in the 1960’s, she began to amass a collection of the vibrant batik textiles of the country.

She had married an Indonesian after Obama’s father left Hawaii to return to Africa, and her daughter, Maya Soetoro Ng –Obama’s half sister—has loaned her late mother’s collection of batik textiles for an exhibition in Washington D.C. from August 9-23 in the Textile Museum there. ( ): “A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks.” “She did not acquire rare or expensive pieces, but rather contemporary examples that were an expression of a living tradition, patterned with both classic designs and those of passing fashion” according to the press release.

Later, when Ann was studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii, she tried to find ways to help craftspeople. She worked with the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and with USAID and the World Bank, and set up micro-credit projects in Indonesia, Pakistan and Kenya to benefit poor women making textiles.

I have always considered textile making (weaving and embroidery) a fascinating art form. In many countries this the only medium of artistic expression available to women and the only way they can earn money. Whenever I travel, I buy textiles –ideally from the women who created them. Now my walls are covered with antique American quilts, Mexican huipils, Haitian voodoo flags and Greek embroidered table runners. Most pieces cost under $100 but they’re priceless, because they embody the maker’s artistic talent as well as (in some cases) their religious or political beliefs and their dreams ,(the embroidered wedding couples worked into a Greek tablecloth as part of a dowry.)

Around 1970 I got interested in antique American quilts. On our second floor stair landing I hung a “Tumbling Blocks” quilt behind a sea captain’s chest full of teddy bears. (The worn teddy with wings on the wall is my childhood friend who has passed on to his reward.) The section from an unfinished velvet and silk Victorian quilt is called “Windmill Blades” and the large “Barn Raising” quilt is from a very old variation on the Log Cabin pattern.

Mexican and Guatelmalan embroideries fascinate me with their sophisticated and wild use of color. I’ve decorated the wall of my studio with antique Mexican huipils that indicate the native village of the woman who wears them. The lady on the right is Maria, whom we met in the marketplace of San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. She was the best among the many women weavers and embroiderers who crowded the marketplace. (San Cristobal is heaven for the collector of textiles.) Near the border of Guatemala I found the embroidery made by a Zapatista woman who was also selling dolls with faces masked like Commandante Marcos. The pillow that was made in Guatemala looks to me like a happy man walking in a graveyard. Could this be a memorial or something to do with the Day of the Dead?

Daughter Eleni, who studied folklore and mythology, introduced me to the sequined voodoo flags made in Haiti and used in the religious rites. These are usually made (and signed) by men and they represent the gods who take possession of the worshiper. These sequin flags and the artists who make them are taken very seriously as art now, which means they can be very expensive. The two large ones represent La Sirene—-The Enchantress—and Baron Samedi—who mitigates between life and death.

Textile artists reflect the life they see around them—the Greek wall hanging is an island scene with table, chairs and cat; the festive wedding scene (brought from Pakistan by Eleni) shows a wedding party celebrating beneath an umbrella. The exquisite antique Chinese embroidery was in a box of textiles I bought for $75. The incredible detailed work and the wonderful reproduction of all those birds, animals and flowers make it beyond price. ( The knots are so small I think it must include the “forbidden knot” that would render the sewers blind.)

Finally there is lace: a simple lace handkerchief and a lace runner that I’m told represents French cathedrals. It may sound silly to buy pieces for a few dollars and then spend much more to frame them, but I do. Last Monday, at the Antique Textiles Vintage Fashions Show and Sale in Sturbridge, which kicks off Brimfield week three times a year, I photographed that lace runner with the deer.—The price tag says $950.00.

I always go to the “Vintage Clothing Show” in Sturbridge, as I call it (The next one is Sept. 3) partly to gape at the celebrities and crazily dressed fashionistas talking into their cell phones in French or Japanese, but I also go to educate my eye and find the rare bargain, and when I go home I enjoy my own collection all the more.

*(To all my English major friends—don’t write to tell me that ‘Like me’ is bad grammar. I know it but used it anyway!)

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