The Bronze Weaver
Asian Art

The bronze weaver Indonesia 6th century bronze Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. The Bronze Weaver Indonesia 6th century bronze Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

This 6th-century figure of a woman, seated at her loom while she suckles her infant, is the rarest and most important bronze sculpture from Southeast Asia to enter the national collection. The figure, 25.8 centimetres in height, is presented in an archaic Southeast Asian style still associated with animism in the remote areas of the region where Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam have had surprisingly little influence on the arts. Recent thermoluminescence dating tests on the core of the sculpture, created through the lost wax (cire perdue) method of bronze casting using a wax layer over a clay model, reveal that the figure was made between 556 and 596 CE (1450–1410 before the present).

While the sculpture survived as a family heirloom in Flores, an island in eastern Indonesia between Bali and Timor, its origins are still speculative since little is known about the history of animist metalwork (as distinct from Hindu Buddhist bronze sculpture) throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Some significant archaic bronze ancestral objects, including huge bronze kettledrums, are readily attributable to the northern region of Vietnam, created during the greatest early Southeast Asian bronze period, Dong Son, named after a major archaeological site. The Dong Son period of Vietnam flourished, however, between 600 BCE and 100 CE. The later date and the distinct archaic style of The Bronze Weaver and other bronze sculptures found throughout Indonesia, which have strong affinities to traditional art produced in the early modern era, appear to indicate a significant local bronze culture continuing within the archipelago long after the demise of Dong Son. The Bronze Weaver is thus extremely significant, not only for its rarity and aesthetic power, but also for the questions it poses about bronze technology and weaving traditions in the outer islands of Indonesia.

The woman, feeding a young baby who touchingly clutches her other breast, is clad only in a calf-length skirt, typical of everyday wear of the more remote regions of Indonesia, especially Borneo, until recent decades. In contrast her carefully braided hair and plait are most unusual. While her necklace is simple, the large bold earrings, probably plugged earlobes, strikingly frame her serene face. The figure is seated at a simple loom. The foot-braced body-tension loom depicted has not been observed in Flores in historical times although local looms, where the warp beam is braced by poles, are very closely related. Identical foot-braced looms, however, have survived in remote districts of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Taiwan, and Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The creator of this sculpture was obviously very familiar with loom technology as the apparatus and the loom patterning are accurately depicted. The circular warp, the cloth and warp beams, the shedstick, the weaving sword and the delicately rendered plaited back strap speak of an era when bronze casting and textile weaving were already prominent gender-specific arts.

The dual cosmos of ancestral Southeast Asia still identifies the realm of the male as hard, hot, sharp, bright and outdoors, in contrast to the female sphere which is cool, soft, smooth, dark and indoors. While the exact meaning of the sculpture will never be fully understood, The Bronze Weaver synthesises auspicious male and female elements of the Southeast Asian cosmos where, even today, complementary textiles and metal objects are essential for ceremonies associated with fertility, prosperity and the honouring of ancestors. The acquisition is especially fitting for the Gallery which holds one of the world’s finest collection of textiles from the Southeast Asian region – many of which were woven on similar looms, display comparable designs and were created for cultures whose beliefs were possibly very compatible with that of the creator of The Bronze Weaver.

Robyn Maxwell
Senior Curator, Asian Art