Just a two-hour flight from Darwin, Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara Province (West Timor) is one of Australia’s closest neighbours. West Timor shares much in common with the ‘Top End’ of Australia including monsoonal weather patterns of extreme wet and dry and a harsh terrain, but it is the social, cultural and trade links that nurture enduring ties across the region.
Historical links between Southeast Asia and northern Australia stem back hundreds of years, through the annual visits by Makassan and Bugis trepang fleets and fishing vessels from South Sulawesi. It is not uncommon today to meet people in Kupang who have worked in the ‘Top End’, or have relatives in Darwin. Over the last ten years cultural associations between the two countries have been enhanced through the activities of successive curators at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). They have created relationships, researched and documented cultural practices across the region and established the museum’s Southeast Asian art and material culture collection. In 2005, Asialink at The University of Melbourne, expanded their Indonesia–Australia Arts Management Program – which supports the professional development of Indonesian arts managers – to incorporate a new program of artistic partnerships between arts communities in Eastern Indonesia and artists from the Northern Territory. Supported by the Ford Foundation, Jakarta, this program offers participants the opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge while establishing creative partnerships and making new work Located 28km south of Kupang, Baun is the ancient capital of the Amarasi Kingdom. The textile artisans of Sanggar Uim Nima in Baun were identified as potential collaborative partners for the program and incumbent Curator of Southeast Asian Art at MAGNT, Joanna Barrkman, who has undertaken fieldwork in the village of Baun since 2002, became an integral partner in the project, taking on the role of project advisor. In 2007, Darwin artists Winsome Jobling and Leon Stainer travelled to Baun to conduct workshops with members of the sanggar; Jobling introducing the art of paper-making using local plant materials such as blade grass, rice straw, banyan, sugar palm and king grass, while Stainer presented print-making techniques in the form of woodblock and dry point engravings on copper plates. Barrkman facilitated the process by assisting with language, the interpretation of ideas and documentation. As the print project developed, two significant Amarasi artists emerged: Robert Koroh and Zarid Baksuni. The artists developed images derived from their rich tradition of woven textiles – ikat – and incorporated historical symbols into the prints, while Jobling and the sanggar joined forces to make hundreds of sheets of hand-made paper onto which the engravings were printed. Textile production is an important source of income for Amarasi people, cloths are also central to ceremonies associated with life events and spiritual rituals and treasured as family heirlooms. The practice encompasses growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving cotton by hand and the use of natural plant dyes is evident in the Amarasi textiles. A single cloth can take six to nine months to make and is worked on only after the tasks of the day are complete. Each region has distinctive style, colour and designs which have been handed down through generations. The textiles included in Ta Teut Amarasi powerfully affirm this cultural heritage and the history of the Amarasi region and provide a context for the imagery of this new field of artistic practice for the sanggar: paper and print-making. Ta Teut Amarasi is funded by The Ford Foundation, Jakarta and Arts NT and produced by Asialink in partnership with Yayasan Kelola, Charles Darwin University, MAGNT and Nomad Art Productions.