Date: probably 18th century
Geography: Indonesia, Sumatra, south central Lampung
Medium: Fiber, ceramic and glass beads, cloth, nassa shells
Dimensions: L. 162 x W. 48 1/2 in. (411.5 x 123.2 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Anita E. Spertus and Robert J. Holmgren, in honor of Douglas Newton, 1990
Accession Number: 1990.335.28
Sumptuous symbols of wealth and aristocratic privilege, the ceremonial banners, or palepai, of the Lampung region of southern Sumatra reflect the enormous riches brought to the region through trade in pepper, which grew in abundance. Restricted to the leaders of high-ranking noble families and clans, palepai were ceremonial wall hangings. Displayed on the right wall of the inner room of noble houses, palepai served as a backdrop for the principle figure, or figures, during important rites of passage, such as the naming of a child, circumcisions, marriages, funerals, and ceremonies marking advancements in social rank. The most widespread motifs on palepai, as here, are stylized ships—otherworldly conveyances whose use perhaps symbolized the transition of the individual from one state to another.
Nearly all palepai were woven from cotton and this beaded example, known as a palepai maju, is virtually unique. In Lampung, old ceramic and glass trade beads of Asian and European origin were exceedingly valuable, and this work, encrusted with some 154 pounds (70 kg) of beads, was an extravagant display of aristocratic wealth that almost certainly belonged to a local ruler or noble of the highest rank.
Against a background that seems to shift from a starry night at left to a blue daylight sky at right, two ships converge on a central triangular form carried by a smaller vessel. The imagery reflects the artistic influence of the neighboring island of Java. The central form resembles the mountain or tree-shaped forms that are the focal point of Javanese puppet performances. The vessel at left carries a shrine with closed double doors. The ship on the right bears a form resembling the carved back panel of a Lampung pepadon (seat of merit), a ceremonial throne reserved for members of the highest aristocracy. The individual capable of amassing the vast resources required to create this monumental beaded palepai would almost certainly have obtained the right to sit upon such a throne.