ASU and Phoenix Art Museum unveil treasured Southeast Asian textiles from professor's collection
A little over 35 years ago, Tom Hudak - now a professor of linguistics at Arizona State University - was a Fulbright scholar living in Sumatra, teaching English at Sriwijaya University in Palembang. While there, he bought a textile from a traveling antiques dealer. That merchant returned monthly, and Hudak continued to purchase colorful woven garments and cloths, beginning a collection of Southeast Asian textiles that today stands at over 300 pieces, many of them rarities.
Some people may think of “textiles” as unfinished, utilitarian fabrics. In the case of Hudak's cache, nothing could be further from the truth. His collection includes ceremonial dresses lavishly embroidered with gold and silver threads, tie-dyed silk wraps, raiment covered in couching and sequins and intricately worked blessing cloths.
“I never looked for any particular piece; I just bought what appealed to me,” says Hudak, who laughs when he thinks of how little he paid in the mid-70s for items that are today appraised at hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Several of those items are currently being showcased in two exhibits at the Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. The Orme Lewis Gallery is playing host to “Sumatra,” a showing of Hudak’s Sumatran textiles. His collection was also the basis for “Connecting Threads,” a three-room exhibit housed in the Asian Gallery, featuring textiles from all 11 Southeast Asian countries and including loaned pieces from four other Valley collectors. In addition, Hudak’s collection will soon be used for a student-based exhibit at the Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology, a fitting venue because the campus museum is what brought Hudak together with Peter Banko, the curator of the Phoenix Art Museum textile exhibits.
In 2008, Banko – a retired international banker – was in his second semester of the master of liberal studies program at ASU, focusing on museum studies. He was part of an exhibit design class taught by ASU Museum of Anthropology director Judy Newland, who guided students through selecting pieces from the school’s archives and curating them for a student-based exhibit. The Thai pot that Banko chose had a mysterious provenance that required research.
As Newland notes, “Peter was always at the top of the class. He enjoyed exploring new topics, like cultural property issues – issues he hadn’t really been aware of as a collector. Now he was on the other side, learning how museum professionals study and care for artifacts.”
She referred him to Hudak, who teaches in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The men, who discovered they were the same age, also learned that they lived abroad for many years, served in the Peace Corps and collected ethnographic artifacts. When Banko – who served on the board of trustees of the Phoenix Art Museum and as president of the museum’s Asian Arts Council – learned of Hudak’s impressive textile collection, he mused that a showing of the articles might help fill the museum’s void of Southeast Asian textiles.
When it came time for him to create a final project for Newland’s class, Banko wrote a proposal to the Phoenix Art Museum for a one-room exhibit based on Hudak’s holdings. It was accepted. In fact, the museum granted him three rooms for exhibit use.
Banko launched into almost two years of hard work and research, which entailed meeting with the world’s leading experts on Southeast Asian textiles. He flew to Washington, D.C., to consult with Asian specialist Mattiebelle Gittinger of the Textile Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of Asian art, John Guy, and noted Drew University anthropologist H. Leedom Lefforts flew out to the Valley to personally assist Banko.
Guy, Banko and Janet Baker, the Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of Asian Art, had the daunting task of sorting through Hudak’s hundreds of textiles and settling on 30-40 exhibit pieces. Guy’s suggestion was to focus on Sumatran textiles, which were particularly well represented in the collection.
Five types are on display: elaborately decorated tubal sarongs known as tapis, found only in southern Sumatra and worn exclusively by women of status; songkets, silk or cotton wraps woven with metallic threads; pelangi; ship cloths; and Batak blessing cloths. Among these, only the pelangi – tie-dyed silk breast cloths representing the rainbow bridge between Heaven and Earth – are merely fashions without ceremonial purpose.
But it is perhaps the ship cloths that are the most unusual articles in the collection. These blue, red and yellow textiles bearing images of often highly stylized ships are an enigma. They are relatively rare, and the meanings of their detailed geometrical designs have been lost to time. When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, it destroyed all of the villages from where these cloths originated. Some anthropologists believe they preserve and recount a legacy of early migration, or perhaps they were the wrappings for gifts exchanged at weddings or other ritual ceremonies, or used as death cloths.
As Banko explains, “These textiles aren’t just beautiful things. They are woven histories that preserve culture and heritage, convey status or rites of passage or have healing and protective powers.” He goes on to say that, because Sumatra has been at the crossroads of many cultures for millennia – and was often a place for sailing merchants to take harbor during the monsoons – this “Island of Gold” embodies the traditions of several peoples. Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Dutch and Portuguese are but a few of the influences.
How to frame anthropological pieces as art was a challenge for Banko. Aesthetically, the textiles are stunning, a spectrum of hues in soft shapes. Western mannequins are not used. Instead, some items are set against butter-yellow walls or modeled on fabric-wrapped tubes that approximate human figures or – as in the case of an opulent royal hip cloth – displayed in a glass case.
But it was important for Banko to give visitors a sense of what the textiles actually meant to their creators and wearers. He fashioned explanatory labels for each display, giving the items historical and cultural context. He also opted for a digital display that walks visitors through the complicated processes associated with creating the garments.
When asked what he hopes people take away from the exhibits, Hudak replies, “I would like people to see that truly beautiful pieces can be made elsewhere and to understand the skill involved in creating these textiles. It’s also important for people to understand that these pieces were useful and meaningful in particular contexts that we don’t have.”
“The exhibits are highly collaborative efforts between ASU and the Phoenix Art Museum,” says Banko, noting that even the entertainment at the formal opening was courtesy of ASU’s Gamelan Orchestra.
That connection will continue with the ASU Museum of Anthropology’s upcoming Trading Cloth and Culture exhibit, which is being touted by the Phoenix Art Museum’s Asian Arts Council as a complementary show. It will be the type of student-based exhibit that introduced Hudak to Banko. This time, however, Banko will be assisting Newland, lecturing to students and bringing colleagues from the Phoenix Art Museum to view the exhibit and speak with the students.
Hudak sees this type of collaboration as important in bringing ASU into the community and securing unique outside resources for students. He praises ASU’s museum studies program and Newland’s class, saying, “they provide the type of hands-on experience essential for students who intend to work with collections or in a museum setting.” Banko is proof of that. When he returns to ASU this spring, things will have come full circle.
Sumatra: Textiles from the Collection of Dr. Thomas J. Hudak runs through July 3. Connecting Threads: Textiles of Southeast Asia runs through April 30. Trading Cloth and Culture will open in the ASU Museum of Anthropology April 8 and run through June 30.
For more information on the Phoenix Art Museum textile exhibits, visit www.phxart.org. For more information on Trading Cloth and Culture, visit asuma.asu.edu.