Cultural Representation
Jim Supangkat

The collaborative works of the Brahma Tirta Sari Studio and the Utopia women that will be exhibited in the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art are more than merely contemporary textiles that employ a range of textile technologies. Certainly, those works which make use of batik techniques have been produced within the framework of tradition, but what is meant here by 'tradition' requires further explanation.

The tradition underpinning these collaborative works is more than just a means by which collectivity is reflected through artistic arrangement. It also encompasses the collective unconscious, where individuality is not considered a pole that opposes collectivity, but the result of tensions between the collective unconscious and the ego as the centre of consciousness. It is through tradition that the textile artists relate to the spiritual world, a place where they carry on a kind of dialogue with their ancestors and touch upon the baseline of tradition.

According to the Aboriginal beliefs which are the basis for the Utopia women’s creations, this spiritual dialogue is called ‘Dreaming’. The dialogue with ancestral spirits who inhabit the realm of the eternal continues in real life and concerns a range of issues. Symbolism and mythology, which have become a sort of guidance for living, are dynamic and constantly undergo change.

According to Javanese spiritual beliefs, which form the principles followed by the artists of the Brahma Tirta Sari studio, the spiritual realm consists of a three-tiered world known as Tribowono (old Javanese for ‘Three Realms'); here there is a microcosmos, or the world of consciousness of the ego or the self; a macrocosmos, or the world of consciousness where the dialogue between humanity occurs; and the World of Light, where the consciousness of the unseen world exists, and where the ‘Golden Cord’ is found. This ‘cord’ connects humanity to the omnipotent and omnipresent creator. Tribowono is the spirit in the creative process. It is the connecting process of feelings between the will and the mind and is that which gives birth to Budi (human intelligence) that is manifested in a piece of work.

The collaborative works employing textiles as a medium and batik as a technique were produced through the involvement of textile artists Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam from the Brahma Tirta Sari Studio in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and the Utopia artists Lena Apweri, Ada Bird Apetyarr, Hilda Apweri, Myrtle Apetyarr, Violet Apetyarr, Gloria Angal, Joy Apetyarr and Barbara Weir.

The meeting in March 1999 at Alice Springs, Australia, that resulted in the production of the collaborative works was not the first meeting between Indonesian textile artists and Aboriginal artists. In 1994 they had come together at a workshop conducted at the Brahma Tirta Sari Studio in Yogyakarta at which the Utopia women developed the batik techniques they had been practising since 1977. At the workshop, the women concentrated on learning techniques for cap printed batik. The cap (pronounced ‘chap’) is used to print repeated ‘batik’ patterns. The cap is fashioned from thin copper sheets and uses a resist tectile technique for dyeing fabric by applying layers of wax to the textile and covering sections of the cloth which are not to be coloured. The cap as a printing device carries the wax onto the cloth, protecting it from the dye. Javanese batik art has thousands of traditional designs, each with its own name and many with spiritual significance. When the Utopia women were learning how to use the cap at the Brahma Tirta Sari studio – and also when they were working on the collaborative works – they created designs for their own use that incorporated Aboriginal symbols.

Other implements used in the batik process include the canting, a kind of nibbed pen containing hot liquid wax. The wax flowing from the nib of the canting covers parts of the surface of the textile. In creating the collaborative works, the Indonesian and Aboriginal artists used the cap (copper stamp), the canting, (nibbed hot-wax pen), and the kuas (a small brush).

The cap used were drawn from the respective cosmologies of the artists as they created their collaborative works. This was because the designs contained symbols possessing a deeper significance. Speaking of Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam’s workshop in Alice Springs, and the cap the Utopia women used, Hilda Apweri said:

Ratherr apetryek, anwenantherr apetyek, anwenekantherrenh, nhenh-arey-#akertarl. Mpwaretyek. Alakenh tyap anyemayt artekerrel anem, ntang, atnyem, tyepety, atnem, tyepety anepanemel. Urtnarl tnem nhenh, mer anwenekantherrenh. Tyepety apmer ra. Nhenh apek arnam arlatyey-artek anteyarl, an nhenhel-arey arlkwetyekarl urntem, nhenh leaf arlkwetyek.

[Those two came, and we all came, with our cap designs. This is where the witchetty grub is lying in the root, these are seeds, the witchetty bush, and the tyepety stories. Here is the coolamon and the digging stick. The coolamon is here. That is our country – the place called Tyepety. Here is a plant that is similar to the pencil yam, and these ones [witchetty grubs] are running towards it to eat it, to eat the leaves.]

Gloria Angal suggests that the stamp designs used in creating the collaborative works have a background linked to traditional beliefs, and are not merely design patterns for textiles. She said:

Cap kel ikweratherrenh Law-akert. Same one akin irrpwerl-rnem apeny arrpem rarey anetyel. Ingkerr-antey. Cap ikewerareyenh mwerr rnem… Law akert ikwerarey, arelhekareyenh irrpwerlekareyenh Law akert akin.

[Their caps have Law, in the same way that Aboriginal people have Law. Their caps are really good. They have their Law, and Aboriginal people have Law as well.]

Of the similarity in spirit among the collaborating artists, particularly with regard to the preparations for the collaborative works, Agus lsmoyo and Nia Fliam suggest that:

Our basic task is to explore the role of budi or human intelligence in the development of a spiritual life. In this regard we are most interested in Aboriginal art in general and the work of the Utopia women in particular, because we see that their art is very close to, as well as, conveying the atmosphere of the natural world through the celebration of themes associated with their Alyterr (Dreaming, Eternity) and its spiritual strength.

The cooperative effort at Alice Springs produced nineteen textile works. One work, 10 metres in length, involved all the artists working together. The artists unanimousIy adopted the theme ‘Sekar Pucung –# Songs of the ancestors’. Other works measuring 3 metres were produced by smaller groups of artists working collaboratively.

At the time this article was written, textile works were still being produced and the artists had not yet decided on the works to be exhibited at APT3. However, one thing is certain; the artists' works will present a new issue at this event. In addition to presenting the spiritual world at an event which is dominated by the material world, the framework of tradition that underpins the artists' works also marks a new direction in contemporary art – a new direction towards the presentation of cultural representations.

Jim Supangkat

Independent curator