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Batiks Collected by President Obama's Mother on View at Washington Museum

Batik is the traditional fabric art of Indonesia. The design often tells a story, and for one American woman in particular, the fabrics told the story of Indonesia, its people and culture. That woman was Ann Dunham, the mother of the President of the United States. Her collection of batiks has been on tour this summer in the United States, and is on display at the Textile Museum in Washington. Priscilla Huff has more.

"You want to try," asked Tri Asayani.

Tri Asayani is demonstrating the intricate art of batik.

"I like batik because we must do slowly," she said.

She uses a small canting tool - a device similar to a pen - to apply wax to cloth.

"I put the wax in here, after, the liquid, and then, we put the batik in fabric, after that, we dyeing, then we coloring, with dye or with brush, then, we remove the wax with hot water," said Tri Asayani.

The wax can be applied many times with different colors of dye to make complex designs.

U.S. President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. During that time, his mother was doing research for a university doctorate and married an Indonesian man. She also collected batiks.

His sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, explains why batiks were so important to their mother.

"She wore batik almost every day and she had clothing made of batik 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 of the craft," said Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Visitors to the Textile Museum can view the president's mother's collection.

Research Associate Mattiebelle Gittinger explains that the cloths collected by Ann Dunham tell the story of Indonesian life.

"Ann wasn't interested in artistic pieces, they were beyond her means," said Mattiebelle Gittinger. "But she did know Javanese culture and she did collect pieces that were rich in cultural significance."

Traditional colors include indigo, dark brown, and white, which represent the Hindu Gods Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. Some regions of Indonesia have their own unique batik patterns such as flowers, animals, or people, taken from everyday lives.

"White in the east was associated with pregnant women," she said. "Red in the South was associated with newlyweds. Both men and women and both would have worn a red shoulder cloth or carrying cloth like this and people who are very much older would have worn the blue type on the other side of the room because it incorporates all of the colors of the cosmology."

Admirers of Ann Dunham's collection say her batiks demonstrate both her knowledge of Javanese culture, and her commitment to one of her first jobs was to bring small loans to the batik makers of Indonesia.