By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
WHAT MAKES traditional Indonesian batik so precious and unique is charmingly revealed in an exhibition continuing at the Jim Thompson Art Centre in Bangkok through February 28.
“Pola – Patterns of Meaning”, organised in conjunction with the Danar Hadi Museum in Surakarta, Indonesia, makes a clear distinction between classic batik and the more common mass-produced product – right down to the absence or lingering presence of the scent of wax.
In its final exhibition before closing for two years while a new building is erected, the Thompson turns over the reins to Yogyakarta-based Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma, who serves as curator.
She has paired samples from the Danar Hadi collection with newly commissioned pieces by Indonesian contemporary artists.
Visitors get a good grounding in the significant role that batik has played in that country’s history and culture and see how batik’s meaning has changed over the years.
The topics covered include “Batik as Identity”, “Environmental and Foreign Influences”, “Gender”, “Political Developments” and “Batik as a Commodity”.
Jaarsma points out that batik is a many-layered art form.
“Young people have their own multiple interpretations of its meanings and relevance and about how they can use it in their lives,” she says. “It’s affected by the market, culture, urban life and religion. Batik has been declining in value, but Indonesians still see it as part of their national identity.
“This exhibition digs into the social issues related to batik and also how it can be adapted to developing different kinds of art and how important the traditional rules of batik creation are in today’s society.”
Jaarsma says the evolution of batik in Indonesia reflects cultural changes, while at the same time contributing to evolving political and economic policies.
“If you go to the market to buy batik today, you find piles of silk-screened cotton with batik motifs, which fulfils consumer demand through cheap mass production. So, when we talk about batik, are we talking about the technical aspects – the wax and dyeing techniques on hand-woven fabric – or about just batik motifs on factory-made cloth? There are various definitions and interpretations to sort through as we try to understand the meaning of batik in its cultural context.”
Asti Suryo Astuti, assistant manager of the Danar Hadi, affirms that preserving batik tradition is crucial because it is part of the national identity and there are specific meanings to different types of batik. A certain kind is used in infant boys’ circumcision ceremonies, another for girls when they experience menstruation for the first time.
“In this way, the tradition teaches them to grow up to be a good person,” she says. “Young people need to learn about these meanings as well as the production methods used. Times change, though. In the past, dark brown, blue and yellow were novel shades worn only within the palace, but nowadays there are no longer such strict rules or taboos on certain patterns.”
Participating contemporary artists who are members of the Ace House Collective have mounted a sculpture installation called “Fervent Base”, which combines a chocolate fountain and video with batik waxing and ironing techniques.
Unesco recognises batik as world cultural heritage, defining it as resulting from a hot-wax-resistant dyeing technique in the application of colour to produce specific patterns with specific meanings.
The qualifications are notable, says the collective’s Adi Kusumo, particularly in light of the burgeoning batik industry that mass-produces batik goods. The process can even be digital these days, involving no manual labour at all.
“Our installation examines the batik manufacturing process that’s being slowly lost, which involves applying the wax by hand and removing the wax. We envisioned a chocolate fondue in which viewers can actually smell the wax, which is a sign that the batik is genuine.”
The artist group Cahaya Negeri shows an installation called “Significant Scenarios”, comprised of batik on cotton that features ornaments and underscores the significant difference in motifs.
“As we understand it, ornaments are batik designs that do not refer to any narrative,” says the group’s Nindityo Adipurnomo. “There are batik designs that are ‘empty of meaning’ and used generally for decoration, but there are also designs that contain cultural and historical context, with meaning embodied in the designs dictating social history, context and protocol.”
Visitors can also walk inside a batik labyrinth, a demonstration of the fact that batik can be more than wearable. Here, you’re surrounded by sensory cues ranging from ornamentation, aromas and plays of light to optical tricks that change with the viewer’s gestures and postures.
In artist Restu Ratnaningtyas’ “Re-growing: Hierarchy, Cotton, Indigo, Synthetic Colour and Tapioca”, women’s roles in the batik industry are shown to extend beyond basic labour. They are in fact the “locomotive” pulling a batik home industry.
She talks about a village called Laweyan in Surakarta where the women running the batik operation hold the title MboKMaseh.
“Laweyan is more than just an important batik centre in Indonesia – it’s also a vital cultural environment with deep historical roots. MboKMaseh is the title of a number of women there who’ve been successful in running their businesses and who represent a continuing part of this local history.
“I’m aiming with this piece to translate these concepts and perhaps encourage viewers to question models of gender relations in other cultural practices that tend to place women in subordinate roles.”
Eldwin Pradipta’s “Shadow Stamp / Tjap Bayang” entails three videos being projected through copper stamps used in batik creation. It addresses, through batik, concerns about the culture and history of the colonial city of Bandung being regarded as mere commodities.
Bandung batik is itself both a commodity and an element of local identity, but recent developments have undermined traditional values. Pradipta celebrates contemporary batik motifs that leave behind traditional philosophy and collective social values.
PATTERNS OF HISTORY
- The exhibition “Pola – Patterns of Meaning” continues through February 28 at the Jim Thompson Art Centre on Soi Kasemsan 2 in Bangkok.
- The centre is open daily from 9am to 8pm. There is no admission charge.
- Learn more at (02) 612 6741, firstname.lastname@example.org and www.JimThompsonartCenter.org.