Spotlight on the EWC Arts Program: EWC Exhibit Highlights Alumna Ann Dunham’s Pioneering Research in Indonesia


Maya Soetoro-Ng, daughter of Ann Dunham, shares insights about her mother's handicraft collection.The mother of President Barack Obama, EWC alumna S. Ann Dunham (1942-1995), is recognized in her own right for her outstanding work in anthropology, which focused on the small craft industries in Indonesian villages. “This exhibit shows how much she really valued the labor of the people,” noted EWC Curator Michael Schuster. “And also how much she honored the crafts of the people of Indonesia and around the world with her efforts in economic anthropology and microfinance and in fostering equality and justice.”

The exhibition “Through Her Eyes: Ann Dunham’s Field Work in Indonesia,” which runs until January 8, 2012, includes photographs taken during her years of field research in Indonesia as well as personal artifacts that include examples of metal smithing, jewelry, leather work, textiles, ceramics, and basketry made in the villages of Indonesia.

Some of her research was carried out while she was an EWC graduate student fellow in the 1970s. Her devotion to social and economic development was reflected in her pioneering work in the field of microfinance and gender equity.    

“Each item and photograph in this exhibit represents a connection, a relationship, an adventure that she had,” explained Maya Soetoro-Ng, Ann Dunham’s daughter. “For me the exhibit is about the value of courage – the kind of courage that allows women like her to forge connections and make a family with people from other cultures on the other side of the globe – the kind of courage that takes the raw material of her childhood and does something unexpected with it.… Intellectual courage coupled with emotional courage is what is required to change the world. The East-West Center was a place that helped her change her corner of the world and helped her to influence others to change theirs for the better.”

Dunham observed the poverty of the village people—including sometimes hunger and famine—and was very sympathetic to the plight of crafts-persons and other villagers.  Her microfinance work was intended to make credit available —thus allowing for the development of more efficient production, and of markets.  Dunham admired the beautiful artistry of even the most humble crafts, yet she realized that there was a need to develop small-scale industries. Dunham’s great accomplishment was in recognizing the potential of the crafts, understanding the processes and the villagers’ needs, and—through great effort—facilitating small scale financing and marketing mechanisms.

“We felt that Ann Dunham’s story would be particularly relevant at a time when APEC connects the United States with the Asia Pacific, and the host of that event is her son, President Barack Obama,” commented EWC President Charles E. Morrison. “More than that Ann Dunham’s life illustrates an aspect of the East-West Center that is very important... The Center is an institution for Asians and Americans to come together….Ann Dunham was one of the American students who received a scholarship from the East-West Center to study Asia and she in turn dedicated her life to Indonesia and its people. As there is no area of the world more important to the United States’ long term future than the Asia Pacific… it is my hope that our hosting APEC will cause us to rededicate ourselves as a nation to our relationship with the Asia Pacific region.”

Related stories:

Ann Dunham's Field Work On Display – KITV news (video and transcript)

Finally, A Home For Ann Dunham’s Art -- Midweek



The East-West Center Gallery is located in John A. Burns Hall, 1601 East-West Road, Honolulu, Hawai’i.  It is open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 12:00 Noon - 4:00 p.m. on Sundays. 

Related Special Events

All in the EWC Gallery; admission free

Sunday, October 30, 2:00-3:00 p.m.

Informal lecture: “Cultivating Global Vision.” Maya Soetoro-Ng will recount memories of traveling with her mother to Indonesian villages.

Sunday, November 6, 2:00-3:00pm.

Illustrated talk: “S. Ann Dunham: An American Soul Forged in Indonesia,” by UHM faculty members Dr. Nancy Cooper and Dr. Alice Dewey. Emerita professor Alice Dewey was academic advisor, mentor, and friend to Dunham. Cooper is an anthropologist specializing in Indonesia and a close friend to Dunham.

Sunday, November 13, 2:00-3:00 p.m.

Lecture: “Understanding Microfinance,” by Prof. Dharm Bhawuk, UHM Shidler Business School and EWC alumnus.

Sunday, December 4, 2:00-3:00 p.m.

Film: “Small Fortunes.” Produced by award-winning filmmakers Sterling Van Wagenen and Matt Whitaker, “Small Fortunes” explores the issues of poverty and microcredit as it features interviews with numerous recipients of small loans in locales ranging from India to the Philippines to New York City.

Sunday, January 8, 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Final day of exhibition; video of “Legacy of Ann Dunham,” a panel discussion held at the 2010 EWC International Alumni Conference, Honolulu.


(Posted October 11, 2011)