In Conversation with: Collector Peter ten Hoopen
Words by Ernest Chan, Photos by Sharon Tsang-de Lyster and Pusaka Collection
Weaving the story of ikat from fraying threads
From 15th September to 26th November 2017, The University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong hosted Fibres of Life: Ikat Textiles of the Indonesian Archipelago, an exhibition showcasing a selection of antique and vintage textiles known as ikat. Though the cultural production of ikat can be found across the globe, from Central and South America to Japan, India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, Indonesian ikat designs and motifs are, by far, the most diverse.
Contributors Ernest Chan and Sharon Tsang-de Lyster spoke with Peter ten Hoopen, owner and curator of the Pusaka Collection, the source of the ikat textiles used in the university exhibition. Over the course of the interview, Peter spoke at length about his passion for the textiles, their significance to Indonesian culture and history, the potential extinction of Indonesian ikat as a cultural phenomenon, and the efforts being made to preserve and document the old craft before all knowledge is lost.
There was first the aesthetic experience.
As far as storytellers go, Peter ten Hoopen is hard to top. An accomplished journalist, copywriter, musician, photographer, and corporate consultant, with numerous multi-year adventures across the Middle East, South America, and Asia under his belt, the 73-year-old globetrotting Dutchman is a walking library of unique stories and experiences.
But the story that Peter has spent much of his life learning and telling is not one that is his alone. Peter is also one of the world’s leading experts and collectors of Indonesian ikat textiles.
Ikat is a Malay-Indonesian word meaning “to bind” or “to tie”, and it refers to both the textile and the technique, marked by having threads resist-dyed, colour by colour, mapping out a pattern or a design that is completed when the dyed threads are woven together. Such pieces have long held important religious and cultural significance to people groups across Indonesia, with specific motifs and designs that vary from island to island. The production process is complex and time-consuming, but the finished textile is stunning.
“I liked that very much, the almost psychedelic effect of patterns that are stable and yet not quite stable,” Peter told the Textile Atlas, recounting his very first encounter with ikat textiles in the 1970s, via a friend who had acquired a piece from the island of Sumba. “They seemed in a transitional state, as if they might turn into something else at any moment,” he added. “I found that very thrilling.”
That moment sparked a four-decade-long passion for Indonesian ikat, culminating in his current Pusaka Collection, from the Malay-Indonesian word for heirloom. The private collection currently includes antique and vintage ikat textiles from across Indonesia, including Bali, Borneo, Flores, Lombok, the Moluccas, the Solor archipelago, Sulawesi, and Sumatra.
Ikat, as a cultural phenomenon, is dying.
At the same time, Peter quickly realized that the long and tedious production required for a proper ikat textile left it vulnerable to the modernizing shifts in Indonesian society throughout the latter half of the 20th century. “[At that first confrontation with ikat] I instantly had a feeling that, oh my God, this must be dying out,” he said. “These two aspects, the appreciation of the beauty and the realization that these things must become scarce, very quickly led me to start collecting them.”
In the decades since, his experiences as a collector have only confirmed those initial fears. “Ikat, as a cultural phenomenon that was vital for the Indonesian island societies, is dead,” Peter declared. “The pieces no longer have the meaning that they would have in the past.”
He cites two major factors that have contributed to the decline of ikat in the cultural consciousness of Indonesians. Firstly, the changing roles of women, especially within people groups that prized ikat textiles. “[In the 19th and early 20th c.] little girls used to sit on grandma's side as she was dyeing and weaving,” Peter said, “and grandma would tell her their people's myths and stories about the gods and the ancestors, and tell her what motifs symbolize which concept or legendary act.”
“Little girls no longer sit long days at grandma’s knees,” he explained. “It’s now coming to a point where most girls even out on some remote island would rather spend time chatting to their friends on Facebook than listening to grandma’s old stories about the myths of their tribe.”
Secondly, Peter looks to the shifts in the religious landscape across the Indonesian archipelago. The mass conversion of populations to Islam and Christianity has robbed ikat, with its basis in pagan ritual and belief systems, of much of its significance and meaning, he argued.
“In many cases,” Peter added, “the people feel that ikat represents a pagan past that they’re not proud of, that it’s something backward and shameful.”
The combined effects of modernization and religious conversion have taken their toll on ikat over the last several decades. “Not just the textile, but also the knowledge disappears,” Peter lamented. “It hardly makes sense to do field research anymore because most of the women don’t know.”
He predicts that in another 20 to 30 years – just one more generation – in Indonesia the traditional knowledge of ikat patterns will have faded away.
The idea is to grab and jot down as much of what we know as possible.
This is where his Pusaka Collection fits into the story of ikat.
Much of Peter’s work in curating his collection is focused on preserving and sharing the old stories before they are lost for good. “I felt that part of my duty as a guardian,” he explained, “is to take care of documentation because so many pieces in museums and in private collections are lying around with almost no information on them.”
This lack of proper documentation has taken Peter down both orthodox and unorthodox avenues of research, including cross-referencing his collection pieces with ikat images online, digging through museum depots, conversations with dealers and other collectors, comparing prices of different textiles in Indonesian markets, and Internet searches that sometimes lead him to connect with little-known researchers toiling in obscure areas of study.
His professional background also informs his approach as a collector, in a way that sets him apart from others in his field. There are other collectors who may also know much about their pieces but Peter is peerless in sharing what he collected, both material and documentation. I’ve been a writer all my life so I’m used to sharing information,” he explained. “Sharing information has always been a core aspect of my life.”
What they will make nowadays is what sells best.
However, Peter’s story of ikat is not the only one. Though the days of Indonesians looking to ikat as important cultural symbols may have passed, you can still find ikat being produced and sold in markets across the country.
These new ikat, often created with the encouragement of non-governmental organizations and sometimes made by women with no prior background in ikat production, lack the cultural connection that gives ikat its traditional value to society, according to Peter.
“[In some environments] women start weaving patterns that do not traditionally belong them,” he said. “They will find a pattern, or they are directed to patterns, that have done very well in the market that stem from somewhere else,” he added, “so they just borrow elements from other cultures.”
What informs production now is not what the women themselves feel about it, he argued, but what the market feels about it. In Sumba, for example, Peter saw pieces with motifs of Hell’s Angels or images of rock stars. “Anything goes,” he said, “and that change is dramatic.”
Other examples of modern ikat commercial production include luxury travel itineraries that allow tourists to witness the various stages of the ikat process, formerly a taboo subject, creating conflict over tourist dollars with surrounding villages, as well as opportunistic Indonesian businessmen placing patents on specific motifs and designs, according to the Pusaka Collection website.
Published patterns become the new canon.
What complicates the story even further is what in anthropology is called 'reactivity': the phenomenon that the work of authors like Peter has influenced the choice of ikat themes that women produce. “It’s almost coming to a point where published pieces are forming a new canon,” he said.
“You see pieces that have been published in books in the international market all of a sudden being produced in greater numbers than ever before,” Peter added. “Many of the weavers now will copy a certain motif because apparently, that has the sign of approval.”
The future of ikat may lie somewhere between the two: the preservation of the old stories and the reimagining of new ones go hand in hand. Even as knowledge is lost and symbols lose their original meaning, designs and motifs are borrowed and reinterpreted for a new commercial audience. What options exist for a once living textile imbued with cultural and religious significance that finds itself in a society that just doesn’t care anymore?
I realized that, yes, I’m just a guardian.
For Peter, the answer, and the hope, is that people start caring again. In a letter written to the Jakarta Post in the spring of 2015, co-authored with Southeast Asia specialist Gary Gartenberg, he argued for Indonesians to put in more public and private resources into preserving its cultural heritage. “There is not really a great textile museum [in the country],” Peter explained. “The documentation is mediocre at best, and on many islands there is no formal attempt to preserve anything.” Outsiders are driving much of the work of preservation.
There are a number of organizations in Indonesia working to preserve traditional ikat knowledge while supporting the work of local weavers, including Threads of Life, Yayasan Tafean Pah, and Timor Aid. While knowledge of motifs and designs, or what is left of it, can be documented, the commercial and economic realities of the Indonesian textile industry can be difficult to navigate, especially for a craft as time-consuming as ikat.
In time, the hope is that the decades of research and documentation by collectors and enthusiasts, like Peter, can be combined with systematic initiatives by local Indonesians to preserve and carry on the traditions and knowledge pathways of ikat in a sustainable fashion among the maker communities.
Until that time comes, the work of maintaining and expanding the knowledge base and telling the story of ikat falls largely on the shoulders of collectors and scholars like him and institutes like the University Museum and Art Gallery and Hong Kong University which recognize the importance of conservation of this unique material culture, the urgency to record what is still known. Partnering with Peter ten Hoopen, the museum is producing Ikat Textiles of the Indonesian Archipelago, the first comprehensive reference work on the subject, hoping that it shall stimulate for further study and serve as a source of inspiration for future enthusiasts of these unique cultural artefacts.
On the role of the collector, Peter is very aware that he is just the temporary guardian of these treasures. "They will pass on to other hands after I’m dead, and it is my duty to take care of them to the best of my ability and pass them on to the next generation in good condition and properly documented.”
Explore the online museum of Indonesian textiles curated by Peter ten Hoopen at Pusaka Collection.
See archived items from the collection here.