Dyed textile art lives and
By Sarina Dahlan-Dann
Being led by a stranger at night along a busy touristy street in an unfamiliar country is neither what I’d normally do nor recommend. But this stranger had promised a cool art exhibit and it was the last day. Me being such an art hoarder, how could I have refused? You may be thinking, “This can’t end well.” But I was still riding on the high that was my family reunion and I felt so safe in Indonesia even if I didn’t speak its language. I was also accompanied by my husband who was a head taller than most people here. He’s also a runner. If anything were to happen, I figured he can run really fast and drag me with him. It all worked out in my naïve head then.
So we walked a good ten minutes down the chaotic street of Malioboro in Yogyakarta, a city its natives call Jogja. I also prefer to call it Jogja because it sounds cool. Jogja is a cultural and art center, and a college town. It seems to be bursting with creativity and leaking with art from its pores. Even graffiti here is gorgeous. It was a warm Wednesday night and the street was crowded with stalls of t-shirts and knick knacks laid at waist level and people browsing through them. To avoid the foot traffic, we walked on the section of the street where the bicycle rickshaws and horse carriages park. Yes, this city still uses horse drawn carriages as a means of transportation alongside cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Not just for tourists.
We came to a stop at the bottom of a narrow staircase that led up to the second floor of a nondescript concrete building. The stairs were lit only by the florescent light coming from the upstairs room. I briefly hesitated but went up anyways, with my husband following closely behind. At the top of the stairs, our stranger friend bid farewell and we were greeted by a smiling, wrinkly-faced man with salt and pepper hair and a batik shirt.
Ah, batik! The ubiquitous dyed textile of Indonesia. We were standing in a small room with a black and white checkered tile floor, lined from floor to ceiling with batik artworks, some as large as a Jackson Pollock. Mind you, this was no MET museum and hardly an art exhibit. The first batik I saw was of two Balinese dancers and I sighed in my head. I was just in Bali and I had seen enough of the Balinese dancer paintings. They almost always come in a pair and have flowers in their hair. But the man seemed nice. He asked us to sit down and brought us tea. You never turn down tea from a stranger right? I took my first sip and hoped it wasn’t drug laced. My husband, being psychologically allergic to any hot liquid, of course refused. I thought, oh good, he’ll still be lucid enough to drag me out if anything were to happen.
The nice batik clad man proceeded to explain to us the process of making this textile art. He brought out a large stretched cloth that showed step by step how artists would patiently cover a design on a piece of cloth with wax then dip it in a color, reapply the wax to areas they wish to remain in the first color, dip it in another color, and repeat the process multiple times before boiling all the hard work in hot water to achieve the final product. Using only three colors: red, indigo, and yellow from natural sources, other colors are achieved by layering dye on top of each other. Being a straightforward visual person, I couldn’t quite get the process that required a brain that understands reverse engineering and negative spaces. So I drifted.
As I took my following sips of tea, my attention shifted to the contents of the room. There were large intricate landscapes of the countryside and people harvesting rice, rainbow fishes intertwining, Buddha statues set against the background of Borobudur temple, more Balinese dancers. Then my attention was grabbed by a startling silhouette in black on a white background with a distorted face. It was so disturbing that I had to take a closer look. This was no rainbow painting. I excused myself and beelined to the artwork.
The figure just stood there against nothingness. It was kind of melancholic and moody, and I felt bad for interrupting it with my presence. The proportions were odd and reminded me of wayangs, or Indonesian shadow puppets. It was just as unsettling and beautiful, but reduced to the essence of mere black and white. Another man came out to greet us. He noticed my interest and put the batik up on a florescent lit platform to backlight the piece. He told us all the pieces here are real batik, handmade to be unique.
The back of a real batik piece is essentially a mirror image of the front since the dye soaked through the entire piece unlike a printed piece where paint is only applied to the front. To achieve the black color, the artist had to layer on multiple colors. I wondered why he didn’t just use black and told him I was afraid to ask the price. He said the prices varied depending on size and skill level. He pointed to the biggest and told us it was his piece. It was the large Jackson-Pollock-sized landscape I had noticed earlier. It was an extremely detailed and intricate piece, and I was in awe. I asked how he became an artist.
The middle aged artist dressed all in black, told us in perfect English that he went to an art university in Jogja and got a scholarship to study in Australia for a master’s in aboriginal art. He is now a teacher in town. He seemed like a happy artist. I thought he couldn’t be the maker of the disturbing black silhouette art work, and he was not. He pointed to a piece of colorful masks with dots and wavy lines, obviously aboriginal in inspiration, and told me it was also his. I began to notice his other pieces around the room by this signature style.
I excused myself to sift through stacked batiks wanting to see more real art and less tourist art. Eh, eh, eh, oooh now that’s good! What I found was an abstract with bursts of colors and organic shapes colliding into a visual explosion like pop rocks for your eyes. It was done with multiple techniques and patterns. Dots, swirls, hashes, and cracks with droopy shapes slinking down like organic ooze. It also had something unique, just as the black and white contorted-faced man did – a large white space, breathing room. Most of the batiks I’ve seen are completely covered with design and color, white being used only as outlines or in very small sections. Traditional batik designs are synonymous with intricate details and patterns. After all, first and foremost, it was created to be worn.
Batik is an old art form dating back as far as the ancient Egyptians and has a long and significant history in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java. Batik was customarily made with just three colors: indigo, dark brown, and white, representing Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, the three main Hindu gods. There were patterns reserved for royalty and patterns people only wear on special occasions like weddings and funerals. Just as any art form of long lineage, batik also absorbed the different cultures it came into contact with such as those of India, Japan, and Arabia. As Islam increased its influence in Indonesia, the human figures were replaced by leaves, flowers, and geometric designs. Not long after Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, batik was used to make shirts as an answer to non-western formal wear. There are collectors of batik worldwide and museums dedicated to it. But it was ebbing in popularity until UNESCO designated Javanese batik as a world heritage in 2009. Now, many people in Indonesia wear batik on a regular basis. Instead of “casual Fridays”, they have “batik Fridays”. Indonesian clothing designers even built their entire collections around this textile. Fine artists are also playing with this medium to express their ideas in more modern styles beyond batik’s wearable function.
So as the artist held up two batiks, both beautiful and breathtaking (to me) in their own ways, I struggled between the two modern takes on this long revered textile. Should I go with the black on white figure that was a complete departure from the old-fashioned batik art or should I go with the colorful abstract that maintained hints of traditional batik designs and a nod to aboriginal art? Then my husband whispered that there was no way he’d be living in the same house with the freaky black and white man. Decision made.
I got a discount for the colorful piece since it was a work by the artist. After we shook hands, he mentioned a friend who builds guitars whose store was nearby. He asked if we wanted to go there seeing that my husband is a guitar maker. So we descended the narrow stairs with my prize tucked in my purse and followed another stranger around dark mazes of side streets in the Malioboro shopping district searching for another artist. There’s no shortage of artists in Jogja - they’re always just around the corner hidden behind the tourist traps.