Date: late 19th–early 20th century
Geography: Indonesia, Flores Island, East Nusa Tenggara
Medium: Cotton, glass beads, chambered nautilus shell, nassa shells
Dimensions: H. 74 × W. 30 in. (187.96 × 76.2 cm) as mounted
Credit Line: Purchase, The Fred and Rita Richman Foundation Gift, 2006
Accession Number: 2006.2
Worn by women on only the most sacred ceremonial occasions, the lavishly beaded skirts called lawo butu of the Ngada people of Flores were treasured clan heirlooms. Unlike virtually all other Indonesian textiles, which are produced exclusively by women, both sexes participated in the creation of lawo butu. Women created the intricate patterns of the cloth using the ikat technique, a complex process that involves tying and dyeing the designs into the threads before the cloth is woven. The men created and attached the ornate beadwork appliqués. Lawo butu were precious objects commissioned by a male clan leader of high status; after his death, the skirt was known by his name. For this reason, lawo butu were sometimes referred to as lawo ngaza, "named skirts." When not in use, lawo butu were carefully preserved in the clan house along with other treasures such as gold ornaments.
Among the Ngada, the beads used to adorn lawo butu were highly valued and reused for generations. According to oral tradition, beads, along with other forms of wealth, originally grew on a single tree planted by two orphans. Cut down by greedy villagers, the tree fell in such a way that nearly all the wealth it carried was lost to the island of Java and only the beads remained on Flores. The beadwork on this example includes depictions of humans, birds, and stylized quadrupeds that may represent horses, which were highly esteemed by the Ngada. The ikat designs are organized into the typical banded pattern seen in textiles throughout eastern Indonesia.