First Family Fabrics: Batiks From Obama's Mother Ann Dunham was an avid collector of intricately patterned, hand-dyed textiles when she lived in Indonesia in the 1960s. Fabrics from her collection are currently on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.
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First Family Fabrics: Batiks From Obama's Mother

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First Family Fabrics: Batiks From Obama's Mother

First Family Fabrics: Batiks From Obama's Mother

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You know, you probably would not pour molten wax onto a piece of cloth on purpose. Unless you are making batik, then dripping and scrapping that wax and dipping the cloth into various colors you could create works of art. President Obamas mother was drawn to this art when she lived in Indonesia. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg says some of those first family fabrics are on view in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

SUSAN STAMBERG: The Indonesian Embassy gave a party for the batiks and President Barack Obamas half-sister Maya came.

Do you remember your mother wearing any of these dresses that she made from the Indonesian batik?

Ms. MAYA SOETORO-NG (Half-sister of President Obama): She wore batik almost every day.

This was when Maya and her big brother Barack lived in Jakarta. Their mother, Ann Dunham, had married an Indonesian in 1967 and began collecting local textiles.

Ms. MATTIEBELLE GITTINGER (Research Associate, Textile Museum): These batiks were seen on the street in the '60s; everybody wore batik.

STAMBERG: Mattiebelle Gittinger, research associate at Washingtons Textile Museum where Ann Dunhams collection is on exhibit.

How much would they cost?

Ms. GITTINGER: Oh about $6, $7.

STAMBERG: Young Barack Obamas mother didnt buy fancy batiks nothing antique, or party-ready. But Mattiebelle Gittinger says Ann Dunham had an educated eye, and her unusual beige or cocoa or coffee-colored batiks, with their elaborate white, black or dark blue patterns, were carefully chosen and often lived in.

Ms. GITTINGER: Ann Dunham wore this pattern a lot, and youll see pictures of her wearing this pattern and it looks good on her.

Ms. SOETORO-NG: She had clothing made of batiks to fit her dimensions which were robust. And she would go and speak to the batik sellers and the batik makers and, she became very much a part of their lives and incorporated their stories into her love for the crafts.

STAMBERG: Presidential sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, thats a loving daughter for you describing her mother as robust.

The Textile Museums Gittinger says as a one-time weaver, Mayas mother came to understand Indonesian culture through its fabrics.

Ms. GITTINGER: Cloth is the marker of society, and she was naturally drawn to cloth, and to cloth that was made locally.

STAMBERG: What do you mean its a marker of society, cloth?

Ms. GITTINGER: All cloth reflects some element of a society. This, in particular, batik: what you wear, the size the motif, the motif itself, and how you wear it all reflects some aspect of where you fit in society.

STAMBERG: President Obamas sister Maya says her mother studied traditional cloth the way she studied Indonesia. She was an anthropologist, as well as an enthusiastic collector.

Ms. SOETORO-NG: She would purchase the batiks and then she would bring them home, and she'd say I have to go fondle my purchases, she said. And so she'd go and shed take them all out and lay them everywhere and really sort of appreciate, and enjoy them as cloth, as testament to the stories of the people who made them as ornament. She genuinely loved them.

STAMBERG: Ann Dunham went on to work with micro-credit programs that helped batik artists, and other village artisans in Indonesia. She was just 52 when she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. Her high-school-teacher daughter Maya, and her president-son Barack, became the keepers of her beloved collection of intricately patterned batiks.

Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

You can see some of Ann Dunhams batiks and family picture of her wearing them at, and the batiks are at the Textile Museum until August 23rd.

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