I visited the island of Savu in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) for the first time in August 1990 while lecturing on the Cruise boat Island Explorer. Each time the cruise boat called at Savu, I tried to gather more knowledge in order to enhance my lectures. Since little had been published about Savu’s unique textiles I started to research the weaving traditions of the island in 1994, especially in the districts of Seba, Mesara and Liae, the main textile producing centres at that time.
Savu is the largest island of an archipelago comprising Savu, Raijua and Dana; the latter, although uninhabited, plays an important role in local beliefs and is considered a sacred place by the population. The archipelago is located halfway between Sumba in the west and Timor in the east and gave its name also to the sea bordering Timor, Sumba, Flores and Solor.
Since 1994 I visited the island twice every year. I obtained a research permit from LIPI in 1997 for my MA thesis on the ‘Savunese ikat textiles’ (University of Heidelberg, Germany) which was published in 2001 under the title Ikats of Savu; women weaving history in eastern Indonesia.
Each fieldtrip to Savu lasted between three weeks and two months, and I always stayed in private houses so that knowledge was gathered as much through formal as through informal interviews. I am extremely thankful to the people of Savu who welcomed me and facilitated my research, invited me to take part in their rituals, let me view the content of their heirloom baskets and allowed me to make a visual documentation. Aware of the fact that the young generation was no longer interested in the traditional traits of their culture, my hosts often allowed me to record legends, stories and histories of the island or put me in contact with knowledgeable elders. I was allowed to trace the genealogies of the male clans (udu) and their lineages (kerogo), of the female moieties (hubi) and their subgroups (wini).
For years my primary aim was to understand the role of the traditional ikat textiles in the society and to document the history of weaving through narratives and female genealogies. I was more interested in photographing old textiles than to purchase or collect samples of the heirloom baskets. Strongly convinced that the Savu people should keep their heirloom pieces, I encouraged them not to sell the textiles inherited from their mothers and grandmothers, and persuaded them to weave identical pieces of the primary pattern of their own group or subgroup for collectors and visitors.
From the analysis of structure and patterns of textiles and their role in the society my research evolved in the last 10 years towards the investigation of memory processes in a society which had no written traditions. The study of mechanisms of knowledge transmission at inter- and intra-generational level became my focal point, taking in consideration oral and non-verbal means of transmission, and textiles certainly play an important role in the latter case. This was the subject of my PhD thesis at the National University of Singapore (2008) which received the Wang Gungwu Award (2009) and the Ananda Rajah Prize (2009). This helped to finance Bunga Palem dari Sabu, Palm Blossoms of Savu, a bilingual book I wrote for the teaching of muatan lokal or ‘local content’ in the secondary and high schools of the island.
My current research on Savu is centred on the cutting edges between anthropology, ethnography and history, on the opportunities and constraints a multi-disciplinary approach can offer when writing the history of the island. With the help of a Swedish researcher, Dr. Hans Hägerdal, I am contrasting locally recorded stories, histories and genealogies with written manuscripts of Dutch colonial times.
Yet my interest in textiles has not faded and I have started to gather the terminology of all objects and technologies related to spinning, dyeing and weaving in the province of NTT, focussing primarily on Austronesian languages with the intent to extend the research to other areas of eastern Indonesia and Southeast Asia. I am very thankful to all researchers who share with me the terminology they have already collected in the region.