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Batik, Collaboration, and Cultural Exchange:
A Year of Artistic Exploration

“The artist’s technical problem is how to transform the material with which he works back into the sphere of the spirit.”

—Hans Hoffman, The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts

The Gwen Frostic School of Art has been very fortunate to have been awarded a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence fellowship—a new Fulbright program, which has enabled Nia Fliam and Agus Ismoyo, of Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia to reside in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA as our Fulbright artists in residence for the 2007-2008 school year. The art they are teaching here is an ancient one, batik. This art, which uses a wax resist technique, takes its modern name from a language used in the place it is most closely associated with: the island of Java—a place of very ancient culture and the birthplace of very early humans. 1 The antiquity of this beautiful island, which sits within the tropical archipelago of modern-day Indonesia, explicates the deep nature of this artistic practice. (Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation on earth and currently the largest Islamic country in the world.)

Certainly our students and Kalamazoo community members could learn the basic technical skills of batik from an American artist. But what Nia and Ismoyo bring to our community is their deeply researched sensibility of how this ancient Javanese art represents “the sphere of the spirit.” One may acquire technical skills in the application of waxes and dyes—by training the physical self (lahir) but it is also the discipline of the inner self (batin) that one derives the strength of one’s unique essence—in order to express visually what one understands at the deepest level. It is this sensibility that is the foundation for this married Indonesian team’s artistic virtuosity. We Americans, who live in a much younger society, can learn much from artists who honor and attempt to preserve a visual literacy that dates back at minimum to the first millennium C.E and yet remain contemporary to their own times.

Patterns are the “traditional” language of batik art. In Java, inscriptions that date to the eighth and ninth centuries detail textiles – gifts and awards to and from people of high status —which are named for their prominent motifs. Moreover, tax charters from the same period detail the sale and import of high quality beeswax and other important tree resins—the elements needed for batik art. 2 This art form required a highly sophisticated visual literacy; patterns of certain motifs conveyed intricate meanings – often layered as motifs were combined.

Textiles have reigned as a dominant aesthetic in Indonesia for centuries and they continue to play important roles in various ceremonies in the islands. Part of the power of ritual textiles has been credited to the creative associations of cloth making and the symbolism attached to the united warp and weft (vertical and horizontal threads). More specific powers may be found in the symbolic elements, the motifs woven or dyed into the cloth. How ritual textiles function or have functioned varies according to local customs, but overwhelmingly, textiles wrap, cover, or contain a sacred object or the primary person/persons of a ritual—securing and delimiting the sacred space, or defining the boundaries of ritual powers. 3

Today, Indonesia is a modern nation very much involved in the contemporary global art scene. And yet, Indonesia, and especially Java, is still a place of patterned cloth. Batik is important to many ethnic groups that live in western Indonesia—especially for ceremonial purposes. But, although one can observe a riotous density of patterns on the streets in Central Java today, few people bother with the meanings of motifs that only speak clearly to historians and artists concerned with such matters. 4 Yet pattern is batik and batik is pattern and this marriage represents the essence of Javanese society. Drawn with a canting (wax pen) or “typed” with a copper cap (stamping tool) and using heated wax and resin resist, this old art form continues to draw foreigners and locals alike to it.

Thus, it is with great luck and good fortune that Nia and Ismoyo were able to come to Kalmazoo this year. They are teaching the multitude of necessary lessons within the actual art processes of batik to our students and other community members but they also are conveying priceless lessons that can be absorbed by artists of all media and art lovers alike. They are teaching the value of finding one’s inner essence, one’s cultural heritage, and one’s own personal analysis of these factors to arrive at an artistic individuality—like one’s DNA, completely unique. They base these teachings on their deep research into the artistic heritage of Java and their own inner values and voices.

In their artwork, Nia and Ismoyo deconstruct and layer patterns in new and surprising ways that also require working in the moment and responding to their collaborative partners. 5 One could cast a dull glance at this work and sum it up as “all the same” – patterns upon patterns – “decorative” lengths of textile work. But, this would be a sadly uninformed view of someone who did not look closely and see what is truly presented: complex networks of intricate visual data that take one into and beyond the surface. For example, the 1998 Romo Kehilangan Betara Asih, (Rama Has Lost His True Love) recalls the ancient epic, the Ramayana. The Ramayana continues to be popular throughout Southeast Asia. A story about love and loss, the epic was also used to teach values, comment on current events, and elucidate the human experience through the story of Prince Rama and his love Sita.6 A proliferation of the kawung motif, which is patterned across the length and width of this silk in varied sizes—hand drawn and printed with caps can be read by those familiar with various mythologies associated with this symbol as a soft but continuous mantra about love and loss. These layers of color and motif pulsate, fade, and emerge in a seemingly random fashion until one steps back and sees how these dark and light tones map out a kawung meta-motif of sorts.

Kawung, a four-lobed stylized floral motif, is often described as the aren, or areca palm blossom motif—derived from the same word in Old Javanese. In the ninth century, the word refers to this palm flower as well as a cloth pattern.7 Although in recent folklore and customs this motif is a trope for marriage, older symbolism takes on the meta-symbology of the yoni-pitha (site of the Goddess; origin of all). 8 This female dynamic, Sakti, of Indic Hinduism was assimilated into Javanese lore.

Sakti mythology of ‘medieval’ India offers the earliest textual association of this motif with the areca palm blossom. Sati, the first wife of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, killed herself out of shame after her father dishonored her husband. Shiva’s grief over his wife’s death was so great that he carried her body as he wandered the heavens—creating havoc until Vishnu, the god of protection, hacked her corpse into pieces in order to end the terrible drama. Fifty-one parts fell to earth, and each spot where a piece landed became a shrine called a pitha, a seat of the goddess. Where her yoni (genitalia) fell is regarded as the “living center of her power.” Javanese retellings of this story integrate regional concerns. Shiva’s wife becomes the goddess of rice, fertility, and weaving. When she died, all sorts of useful plants sprouted from her corpse. The areca palm grew from her genitals and her bones became the first loom. 9 The locally-styled narratives specifically connect the production of textiles and fertility with the goddess’s supreme power of generation. The signifying emblem for this precept is the areca blossom stylized as the kawung motif. 10

The use of the kawung motif for subsequent centuries in Java has come to symbolize the royal and sacred nature of this potent design. Modern Javanese teachers interpret this motif—found all over the world since ancient times—as the visual representation of the four directions, which comprise a symbology of color and meaning, as well as binaries of death, regeneration, the divine, and the worldly needs for love and compassion as well as acceptance of destiny. 11 Thus, the motif found on the inner walls of a ninth-century temple complex continues to function as an important sign in Java today. 12 The ancestral knowledge is passed down through the centuries but because of its visual nature the meanings are able to flex with the times and yet still remain potent. Sita’s name (“furrow”) recalls her relationship with Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth) and it is to the earth that Sita returns—much like the fallen Sati, wife of the god Shiva. The Ramayana narrative is well known by all in Java—still significant after all these centuries—and the use of the ancient and royal kawung motif for this textile is supremely appropriate to connote the poignant story of womanly sacrifice.

Another ancient Javanese concept that is utilized by this artistic team is collaboration. The Javanese call the helping of one another or mutual cooperation gotong royang. To my American point of view, this teaching seems to fit with Nia and Ismoyo’s artistic collaboration with one another and their subsequent collaboration with peoples from all around the world. This is another important lesson that our students and community can absorb from this year with Nia and Ismoyo in our midst. In the postmodernist perspective, hybridity, diversity, and pluralism are touchstones. And certainly, artists of Indonesia who have ventured out of the country have found that they are already familiar with these ideas that are part of the nation’s motto, “Bhinnéka Tunggal Ika,” (Unity in Diversity). This makes sense for a nation that is comprised of over three hundred and fifty ethnic groups with their own customs and languages. 13 Moreover, Indonesians have a long past of welcoming strangers to their lands and seas. 14 And, the maritime nature of these islands means that for centuries, residents have been going abroad (merantau) to make their way, and possibly their fortune, in life. Collaboration with others then seems to be a natural characteristic of peoples that realized that their ancestral traditions often depended upon mutual help and cooperation as well as dealings with “foreigners.”

As Nia’s interest and commitment to the study of batik was quickly accepted by her Javanese teachers, she soon found herself in partnership with the artist Ismoyo. As they blended their efforts to do collaborative batiks a spontaneous melding occurred between East and West and South and North. As T.S. Elliot noted, creative collaboration ignores ownership in favor of the freedom of appropriation. 15 The fear of loss of control and the fear for the suffocation of one’s own “voice” are well understood in this American culture. I grew up proud to be an individual and protective of my “rights” of ownership. But geniuses like Elliot viewed creative process as needful of collaboration—seeing this process as reciprocal and inspirational. He wrote of the notion of fertilization within cooperation and conversation versus the “silent struggles of a single man.” He saw collaboration as a solution to the problem of creative process and did not elide the unknown and invisible contributions when he called the artist a “medium” who gives voice also to feelings, images, and inner essence. 16 Apparently, Nia and Ismoyo found this to be true and not only opened themselves as partners and “mediums” to invisible creative forces, but also to many others from a wide array of places and circumstances.

Nia and Ismoyo collaborate with their studio, Brahma Tirta Sari (BTS) partners as well as with several groups of aboriginal artists from Australia, street kids in Central Java, rural village kids in Java, Malian and Nigerian artists in Africa, and currently — Western Michigan University students. When viewing some of the resulting artworks one is struck by the way the various artistic voices “sing” harmoniously. In Ancient Stories, Mali (2005), a large egg shape dominates the central space. This speaks about the Javanese philosophy of Tribawana, (the three worlds: the self, the universe and the creative source). Surrounding this “enclosure” are abstracted elements that resemble feet, arms, and birds—expressing Yoruba (Nigeria) origin myths—while freeform fiery elements (connoting a mystical aspect of Javanese metallurgy) seem to lick dangerously from the left edge. The warmth of this piece’s colors seems to address the tropical experience of desert and jungle and perhaps the essence of creation that is at the root of all societies that the Javanese and African artists know so well. In the 2005 piece titled Menggapai Langit, (Touching the Sky), a collaborative piece with youth from a remote village on Mount Lawu, Java, the layers of “broken” motifs lead one’s eye up the long vertical and combine the colors of the warm sun, clear sky, and solid mountain and greenery of the beautiful place these boys and girls live in. It seems to express yearning as well as satisfaction with destiny as the verticals and horizontal elements create a harmony rather than a frisson of discord. One sees the artistic guests’ signatures far more easily than those of Nia and Ismoyo (ISNIA)… but one is always aware of their orchestration and astute eye for balance and assimilation. This is a remarkable achievement and of great value to budding artists here in the USA. Several of the batik students from WMU will be working in collaboration with ISNIA and their BTS studio to create one or more works for future exhibitions. To learn to both find their essential voices and then let them blend into the visual choir of these batiks will no doubt bring about invaluable lessons that will aid in their futures… and forever have exposed them to the greater world of art.

Kalamazoo, Michigan and Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia are physically 9,942.51 miles (16,001.46 kms) apart. One can travel between these two arts friendly communities in less than 30 hours. But the ancient culture of Java is much further removed from contemporary life in Kalamazoo, and yet through the cultural exchange provided by artist-in-residence programs we find that our world’s heritage is accessible—and for this we give thanks.

Mary-Louise Totton
Assistant Professor
Director of the Arts in Java Program
Frostic School of Art
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Mary-Louise Totton has a Ph.D. in art history from The University of Michigan with a focus on Southeast Asian art. She has written a manuscript on Lampung tapis (Sumatra, Indonesian textile arts) that will be published next year. Her next project is a book about the art, spirituality and network science found in the ninth-century temple of Loro Jonggrang (Prambanan, Java).

1 The so-called Java man (one the earliest Homo erectus) dated to 700,000 years ago was found in the central part of the island.

2 See Jan Wisseman Christie, “Texts and Textiles in ‘Medieveal’ Java,” Bulletin de L’Ecole Française d’Extréme-Orient, vol. 80, no. 1 (1993) who has interpreted these ancient Javanese charters and the thesis of Aswoto, “Peranan Pakaian Pada Masa Jawa Kuno: Tinjauan Berdasarkan Prasasti Abad IX-XI Masehi,” (University of Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Java:1994) who has identified all of the early representations of patterned cloth from sculptural evidence in Java.

3 I quote here from my dissertation, “Weaving Flesh and Blood into Sacred Architecture: Ornamental Stories of Candi Loro Jonggrang,” (The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: 2002), 275. Historical studies of Indonesian textile art are too numerous to mention. See the work of Mattiebelle Gittinger in order to begin such a study.

4 Hence the aptly named “Trashcan of Tradition” batik artwork by Nia and Ismoyo (2002) that was exhibited in the Frostic —November 9, 2007) in the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts.

5 In fact, much of their art is signed BTS, Brahma Tirta Sari, the name of their batik studio that was established in 1985, in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

6 In Java their names are Romo and Shinta.

7 Christie, (1993), 20. The areca palm, native to this region, produces betel nut. In Java, brides and grooms were known to throw betel nut at one another in a humorous rite that predicted who would be the dominant partner. Roy Jordaan and Anke Niehof detail the importance of the areca nut to marriage rituals in their essay, “Sirih Pinang and Symbolic Dualism in Indonesia,” David S. Moyer and Henri J. M. Claessen, eds., Time Past, Time Present, Time Future: Essays in Honour of P.E. de Josselin de Jong, (Dordrecht, Foris: 1988), 168-177. The effects of chewing betel, a mild narcotic, is said to relax the newly married couple in order to aid their lovemaking. Thus the motif recalls both marriage and fertility in this context.

8 Regarding the yoni-pitha, see Alit Veldhuisen-Djajasoebrata, Weavings of Power and Might: the Glory of Java, Museum voor Volkenkunde, (Rotterdam: 1988), 15-16.

9According to Wendell Charles Beane, this account of Sati’s suicide and the resultant phenomenology of these abodes of the goddess were new religious valorizations of the female in Tantric-Puranic literature that was added in the early medieval period in India [contemporaneous with the eighth and ninth centuries in Java]. See Beane, Myth, Cult, and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism, Brill, (Leiden: 1977), 200-203. Also see, Robert Wessing, “Wearing the Cosmos: Symbolism in Batik Design,” Crossroads: An Interdisciiplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, Northern Illinois University, (DeKalb, IL: 1986), 57.

10 I lift this passage-with much paraphrasing-from my dissertation, (University of Michigan: 2002), 287-290.

11 Nia and Ismoyo and scholars who have followed their work for decades (like Dr. Astri Wright) have discussed these layered meanings at length. (Personal communication: 2007)

12 Two facing reliefs of about three meters high depict kawung patterned textiles in the vestibule of the Shiva temple’s garbhagriha (the womb chamber)—the innermost core of the ninth-century Candi Loro Jonggrang complex.

13 Thus, most people speak at least two languages-their local one and the nation’s common language of Indonesian.

14 Of course this was less pleasantly received when some of those strangers turned to colonialist ambitions. (The Dutch held control of the islands for 350 years and the Portuguese, Japanese, British also dominated some of these territories for some length of time.)

15 Richard Badenhausen, T.S. Elliot and the Art of Collaboration, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, UK: 2004), 218.

16 Badenhausen, 2004, 43,48, 62, and passim.


Javanese ladies dyeing batik
19th century, ® KITLV, University of Leiden, NL 1985

WMU students remove wax from their artworks, Fall 2007 class with Ismoyo and Nia
(left Vanessa Marlink, right Caitlin Conway)
photo (ml totton)

Seven Sisters I, 2006, (detail)

Api Biru / Blue Fire, 2004 (detail)

Walka-walka II, 2006 (detail)

Rama Kehilangan Betara Asih I / Rama Has Lost His True Love I, 1998 (detail)

Kebun Binatang Sakral / The Sacred Zoo, 2007 (detail)

Cerita Kreasi, The Creation Story 2005

Bapak Langit Ibu Bumi / Father Sky Mother Earth, 2005 (detail)

Api / Fire, 2001 (detail)