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Whitman College

Publication Date

Fall 2019

Program Name

Indonesia: Arts, Religion, and Social Change


Questions about the roots of human nature have been plaguing human societies across the globe since the beginning of time. Whole societies are built around the perceived answers, and the art which these societies produce reflect upon it and even contribute to constructing ‘proper’ human behavior. One such artistic material that lays literally quite close to the human body is the textile. Textiles can possess the specific power to shape the way in which an individual human body is presented to others, as well as to position a collective of humans in relation to others. In other words, textiles can make both implicit statements about the state of an individual human being and about the group to which they belong. Considering that many also play significant parts in arranging human societies according to social statuses, textiles are capable of merging conceptions about human nature into the structure of human society.

In Indonesia, a country of many diverse cultures possessing their own unique traditional textiles, the same concepts apply. However, increased globalization had put pressures upon certain Indonesian groups to find ways to adapt their textile craft in order to survive the changing environmental, economic, political, and cultural climates. The implications of such textiles changing in form or usage lead to similarly dramatic shifts in the cloth’s implied statements about the nature of humanity. However, there is one Indonesian textile in particular that is endowed with a dynamic traditional understanding of human nature that makes it flexible in a way that it can participate in these national and global shifts without losing its original meaning or its purposes: Toba Batak ulos.


Art and Design | Asian Studies | Fiber, Textile, and Weaving Arts | Politics and Social Change | Sociology of Culture | South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies


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