Travelling to Jakarta, Indonesia for the first time in October 1967 to meet her husband, with a young Barack Obama in tow, Ann Dunham got a first taste of the country where she would spend a large portion of her life researching and carrying out extensive fieldwork that would culminate in a thousand page dissertation on Indonesian blacksmithing among the rural metalworkers of Java. The dissertation, however, was merely the tip of the iceberg to her life’s work and in the greater scheme of her accomplishments, nothing more than a materialistic product of her ethnographic studies. It was her desire to improve people’s lives and her devotion to help where she could that was her driving force and defined who she was.
The life of an anthropologist can be an all-consuming one and more often than not, requires a level of determination that few are willing to commit to. In the course of trying to make sense of human experience and all facets associated with it, anthropologists undertake prolonged fieldwork, leaving behind their own life as they know it, and fully immersing themselves in the culture of interest. Ann Dunham’s passion and love for the people and country of Indonesia were perhaps rivalled only by her infatuation with its crafts, and in particular batik. Her Ph.D advisor and mentor Alice Dewey notes, that “She was herself a weaver, I think tapestries, and textiles, batik and ikat and all the other kinds of cloth of Indonesia just enchanted her.”
A zeal for life
Throughout her time in Indonesia, while travelling far and wide among the rural villages of Java and working with women in cottage industries, Dunham amassed a vast collection of batik, a representation of her journey and celebration of her love for what, in the words of her daughter Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng, “…became her extended Southeast Asian family”. For the first time ever now, this personal collection is being exhibited outside of the United States, here in the heart of KL at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, in an exhibition dubbed Ann Dunham’s Legacy: A Collection of Indonesian Batik. Launching the exhibition recently and providing a great deal of insight into the life of Dunham who passed away in 1995, Dr Soetoro-Ng, the daughter she had with Lolo Soetoro and half-sister of the current U.S. President, fondly recalled anecdotes and spoke with warmth and passion as she remembered her mother. In relating the persona of her mother, Dr Soetoro-Ng recalled the ease with which she made immediate friends, with adults, children and animals alike, how everyone would gather around her and soon after there would be laughter and storytelling. “The greetings they exchanged with Mom conveyed an intimacy that made clear they had fully taken each other’s measure…laughter was easy…she was welcomed and trusted by all.”
Listening to Dr Soetoro-Ng talk about her mother, it becomes clear that this was a woman who desired equality and justice among the people she lived and laboured tirelessly to bring them about. It was a labour of love however, and one that spoke more powerfully to her than any other calling. Through the fine art of batik, a craft that spoke to her deeply, she was able to both connect with people and bring them together and through this in turn, create change that would stand the test of time. Quoting Dr Soetoro-Ng, “She felt batik was powerful because it was beautiful…it gave people who made it a means for securing a livelihood for their families, for improving their communities. More powerful still, were the stories of the people who made it.” Precisely because of this quality, her ability to step back and listen with much love and sincere respect to the words and stories of batik makers and other craft people, that she gained such an affectionate reputation among the people. Her industrious nature was matched only by her ability to listen and understand what they had to say.
In the later part of her career, Dunham worked with a number of organisations in Indonesia to improve conditions in rural areas and adjust policies that would lead to sustainable development. She bridged the gap between peasants and financial institutions through the development of microfinance programmes that comprised credit and savings projects. Through her field work and living among the rural metalworkers of Java, she realised that the very poor struggled to survive with solely their crafts, and it became central to her philosophy to find a sustainable means to aid them. As Dr Soetoro-Ng puts forth “She wanted the arts of the smiths to endure, yes, but she also wanted their families to survive, and she wanted microfinance programmes to be supported so that communities could become more fully engaged and individuals more universally empowered.”
Running in tandem with this was her pursuit in the organisation of support programmes addressing women and poverty, and by 1988, she had secured a position as research coordinator for Bank Rakyat Indonesia where she went on to establish an extensive system of microcredit programme throughout the country. She would continue to fight for women’s equality worldwide until the end of her life, becoming a policy coordinator for the Women’s World Banking in 1993.
President Obama remembers his mother and her belief “…in the importance of educating girls and empowering women, because she understood that when we provide education to young women, when we honour and respect women, that we are in fact developing the entire country”.
It is sometimes easy to forget that while Dunham was an eminent anthropologist, avid collector of arts and crafts and pioneer in microfinance, she was also a successful mother who raised not only the 55th president of the United States, but also distinguished scholar Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng, who has taught in schools and universities, authored books, helped her half-brother campaign successfully in the 2007 presidential elections and is tremendously committed to building bridges between Malaysia and Indonesia as a delegate of the East West Center. The two countries carry weight in her own life due in part to her own ethnicity, the influence of her mother’s lifework and the fact that her husband, Konrad Ng, scholar-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program, is of Malaysian Chinese descent with Sabahan parentage. She displays a similar fondness for batik, which she believes “…like the kris, and so much else, is something which connects Malaysia and Indonesia and speaks to the beauty of this region as a whole. Its so wonderful to have something which is part of the shared history of more than one country, and that speak so powerfully to that history.”
Dunham gathered together her collection of batik from village markets, households, backcountry roads and many other places, none of them valued at a high price, but all of them worth more than the world to her. It was through them she was able to understand the lives of other people, their culture, their traditions and maybe most of all their challenges and hopes. She wanted to be with as many people as she could and help them, through her work and besides it. Her spirit and her ability are perhaps best remembered by an anecdote told by Dr Soetoro-Ng, one that she herself immortalised in her children’s book Ladder to the Moon. This was Dunham’s love for the moon because unlike the stars, it is the same everywhere, a powerful connecting force that governs the tides. Her last wishes were to be buried beside the water, “…for how else would she travel to all of the places that she loved and to see the people she loved, that’s how she envisioned the ever after. The ability to move, and to love and to connect was a paradise for her”.
It is Dr Soetoro-Ng’s wish that the exhibition of her mother’s treasured batik collection will not only stand as an assortment of beautiful and striking pieces of art, but also infuse us with a sustained desire to connect with other people as her mother’s life was devoted to.
Find out more about the life of this fascinating woman at the exhibition Ann Dunham’s Legacy: A Collection of Indonesian Batik running until 20 July, as well as the publication of the same name, available at the museum.
Ann Dunham’s Legacy: A Collection of Indonesian Batik
Where: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Admission: RM12 Adults, RM6 Children & Senior Citizens
Phone: 03 2274 2020