Keeper of the Sikka Culture: Flores, East Nusa Tenggara

Had Alfonso Horeng chosen to pursue her master’s degree in agriculture science, the lives of 200 women or more on the island of Flores would surely have been different. During the year 2007, Alfonso — who is often referred to as “the keeper of the culture of Sikka” on Flores — has participated in 12 exhibitions in Jakarta.

Her mission is to draw attention to the exquisite ikat (woven cloths) of her island home, some of which are more than 100 years old according to Lily Manurung. Alfonso points out to potential buyers the artistry and detail of these textiles.

They carry silent stories of the people who wore them, as well as the larger story of the Sikka culture. The cloths are generally worn during festivities and on ceremonial occasions throughout the owners’ lifetimes.

If the cloth is new or unused, the warp yarn will still be uncut.
A single piece of cloth can take a year or more to make. Alfonso said the textiles were woven by women as most of the men in the rural subdistrict where she lives had left to work in the city.

The weavers often lack the funds to purchase the raw material, cotton, because they cannot sell their finished goods. That is why Alfonso has begun to cultivate her land for the production of cotton, again relying on the labor of women.

Natural dyes are produced locally — from the cultivation of the plants to the extraction and preparation processes.

The art of making ikat involves knowing where to resist the dye on the yarn — thus by tying the sections tightly the dye is held back at certain distances and lengths on both warp and weft so that when they are woven they make the desired patterns or motifs.

Added to this difficult task is the requirement of applying the dyes, or mixtures of them, in order to produce a myriad of colors: blue, red, indigo, brown, black and more. These women are masters of the art of weaving and yet, their works never carry their identities, they work anonymously.

Alfonso’s dedication to keeping the tradition of weaving among her people alive is remarkable. She has set up a training center, albeit a small one, where young people can learn the art of weaving. So far, there has not been any outside assistance

“To meet targets sometimes I have to give big discounts,” Alfonso said. “Once a visitor from Kosovo liked the earrings I was wearing at an exhibition and, since he offered me a very good price, I sold them to him.”

At the age of 32, Alfonsa is empowering the women of her community. Visitors to her workshop in Sikka leave her with the message: “Keep up the good work”.