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Cover: Ceremonial breast cloth (lilen) from Mro Arang, Northwest Rakhine State. Cotton, silk, glass beads; warp-faced tabby ground with multiple supplementary weft weaves. Estimated 1890–1920. Dimensions W: 29 1/4” H: 12”. Burma Art Collection, at NIU BC. 2007.04.08. Gift of Nancy Roberts.
Cover design: Jeff Strohm, Northern Illinois University.
This is a detailed part of a typical breast cover used by a number of related Chin ethnic groups such as Khumi, Khami, and Mro located between the northwestern Rakhine State, the Chin States in the Western part of Myanmar, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Southern Bangladesh. This example is part of a short rectangle (usually c. 60 cm x c. 30 cm), wrapped diagonally above one shoulder and under the opposite arm, to barely cover the breast. The beautiful and rich pattern with beaded edges is typical of the Arang, one of the sub-groups of the area, who used three warp stripes produced on their back-tension loom. One side is covered with a rich fl owery pattern using extensive supplementary weft visible only on one side with false embroidery (ni oung pining), while the patterning yarns are not visible on the other side, demonstrating an aspect of the sophisticated technique of the weavers. The beads and the fine treatment of the edges indicate the ceremonial function of this piece. The geometric pattern called mukha [“spider” or “spirit” design] is alternated in a rhythmic mode with a change of color.
In 2005, David and Barbara Fraser extensively documented the rich tradition of textiles from this area in Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. In their section entitled “breast cloths,” they took special note that the particular upper body garments for women woven by Khumi, Khami, and Mro were radically different from those of most other Chin groups. As mentioned by Professor Lehman from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) who did his major fieldwork in the area in the 1960s, the heterogeneity of such textile is likely the result of migration, intermarriage, and inter-communication among these groups, which have led to a usually great variation of ethnic patterns. Much of the variation is used to mark the particular ethnicity of the wearers’ ethnic category. And the distinctions are meaningful to the entire region because the variants are made from a common “vocabulary” of design elements and techniques of manufacture.
“A visitor in 1921 noted [the] intermingled groups of Khami and Mro inhabiting one river valley. He wrote that between them ‘there is a certain degree of diff erence with regard to modes, manners, and religious beliefs’.”
The Burma Art Collection was gifted and bequested several fi ne examples of breast covers from these different groups, thanks to the generosity of donors such as Professor Emeritus Richard M. Cooler and the late Mrs. Roberts. Amongst her numerous philanthropic activities at NIU over the years, she had personally underwritten the purchase of these textiles collected by John Baker, who visited the Chin area in early 2000 and documented as well as recorded the local names then in use toward identifying the widest range of related, finely patterned textiles produced by each of the above-mentioned ethnicities.