Obama’s Mum’s Batik Collection on Display in Washington


WASHINGTON ~ A selection of Indonesian batiks that belonged to President Barack Obama’s late mother went on display this week at the Washington Textile Museum, the final stop of a national tour of the unique textile collection.

The exhibit – entitled A Lady Found Culture in Its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks – gives visitors a unique insight into the life of Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, and her work as an anthropologist.

“We are talking about a woman with a great deal of knowledge,” said Mattiebelle Gittinger, a research associate at the Textile Museum in Washington.

“The variety of designs shows how deep her knowledge was.”

Around 20 batiks will be on display in Washington for two weeks, starting Sunday August 9 and running until August 23.

The pieces were chosen from Dunham’s collection by Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Soetoro-Ng has kept all of her mother’s textile collection – around 100 pieces – at her home in Hawaii.

Most of the pieces were acquired by Dunham in Indonesia, where she lived and worked in the 1960s after marrying Soetoro-Ng’s father, Lolo Soetoro.

“She was naturally drawn to the vibrant textile arts of her new home,” a statement issued by the Textile Museum said, adding that Dunham had “explored textiles as a weaver” when she was younger.

Rather than acquiring rare or expensive pieces, Dunham preferred contemporary designs, some mass-produced, others hand-crafted. She would scour outdoor markets for many of the 100 pieces she acquired over the years.

“Ann Dunham was not rich,” said Gittinger.

“She didn’t collect great artistic or valuable pieces but rather contemporary examples that were an expression of a living tradition,” a reflection of her profession.

As an anthropologist, Dunham was also deeply interested in learning more about the lives of the people who craft colourful batiks, a process that involves laying down a pattern using wax.

According to Gittinger, Dunham had long been interested in handicrafts as a means of economic development. Her doctoral thesis was about the makers of Indonesian gongs and sabers, said Gittinger.

While working with the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and later with the US Agency for International Development and the World Bank, she helped to guide micro-enterprise projects to aid poor women.

Dunham died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52.

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