on Nia – Ismoyo’s Batik Art
Batik art works by Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam, created in collaboration between the two artists, have been included in many contemporary biennales and triennials, such as the Sydney Biennale in Australia in 1997 and the Asia Pacific Triennial in 1999. Although batik is recognized as one of the techniques of the rich realm of Indonesian traditional textiles, it is, in essence, not only about creating images on fabric with the use of specific dyeing techniques. Traditional batik patterns are related to specific rituals and occasions and, in some cases, people. A valuable batik bears traces of the maker’s technique and character.
Nia Fliam, an American artist, studied textile art at Pratt Institute and then moved to Indonesia in 1983, where she further explored batik as a medium of artistic expression. Meanwhile, the Indonesian artist, Agus Ismoyo, who was brought up in a family long immersed in the art of batik, after having experimented with various other media, such as painting, decided to adopt batik as his personal medium of expression. As their artistic concepts complimented each other, Nia Fliam and Agus Ismoyo agreed to collaborate in their artwork. Together they delve deeply into the aesthetic principles of batik. The results are expressions of visual language that retain the aesthetic fundamentals of batik. Their works contain a myriad of cultural symbols and demonstrate meticulous technique. Their batik transcends the domain of traditional batik. Their pieces are neither merely functional nor decorative objects; they embody a depth of expression.
Nia and Ismoyo’s works, which draw upon the traditional arts, are not easily contained within the developments of the international art world. Their perceptions of art lie outside the discourses that rely on categories—representations in the search for the true reality; subversions trying to break down cultural codes; the essence of visual language that can portray the unrepresentable as real. Their batik, however, can actually serve as material for the discussion of trans-cultural aesthetics currently active in the United States. 1
Stephen Davies discusses trans-cultural aesthetics in his essay, “Non-Western Art and Art’s Definition,” in which he questions why aesthetic experience in the concept of “high art” comprises almost entirely tangible phenomena. 2 According to Davies, an aesthetic experience is an encounter with beauty. He therefore proposes that the comprehension of beauty cannot be restricted to the observation of material phenomena in the visual arts. Davies argues that art, in all cultures and times, is associated with storytelling, image making, sculpting, singing, dancing, and theatrical performances. All of these activities constitute art and are related to the experience of encountering beauty. They cannot be separated from their meanings, values, and cultural contexts. Davies affirms that such art practices, which are still conducted in a holistic manner in non-Western countries, have social and ritual functions. In these activities, aesthetic appreciation is not restricted entirely to visual symbols, nor does it give rise only to simple pleasures. According to Davies, in non-Western societies, people value the skills that produce aesthetic phenomena, because of their contemplative nature.
Based on similar premises, Lynn M. Hart describes the decorative jyonthi paintings from Uttar Pradesh, India that were included in the famous exhibition, “Magiciens de la terre,” at the Pompidou Center, Paris, in 1989. Hart proposes that these decorative paintings, all produced by women and recount ancient myths, cannot be classified as decorative or functional objects, but rather, are indeed works of art. 3 In his essay, “But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art”, Denis Dutton cites Hart’s description and questions her classification, asserting that works of art are not merely determined by aesthetic phenomenon. Technical excellence, according to Dutton, is not the reason why Western society is interested in art. 4 As reflected in the title of his article, Dutton wonders whether art in the non-Western world embodies the same artistic concepts as those of the West. He does not wish to propose that art does not exist in non-Western countries but he questions whether Hart has accurately classified these decorative paintings as works of art.
As if responding to Dutton, Stephen Davies argues that the reading of aesthetic phenomenon in non-Western societies invariably relies on perceptions that have developed in Western institutions; Western aesthetic concepts are used as the universal standard. With these standards, ethnocentric views judge artistic phenomenon and practices in the non-Western countries as different and not constituting art.
Davies believes that the use of the Western concept of art as the standard will reach an impasse as it suggests that art exists only in the West. Arguments that are often used to support this opinion claim that in non-Western societies, art is neither discussed nor defined. Davies rejects Dutton’s view that there are no terms that can be considered as equal to the term ‘art’ in non-Western societies. In fact, Davies is certain that “creating art” in the non-Western world has a wider meaning than it does the West. 5
Davies perceives that art in the non-Western world retains an intimacy with culture that is universal in nature. In contrast, the concept of art in the West separates Art with a capital “A” from art with a lower-case “a” and does not reflect the idea of a universal nature of art. He believes that the current perception of art in the West must be broadened. Moreover, since the understanding of “aesthetics,” which nowadays refers exclusively to visual appearance does, in fact, hinder the development of art in the West. To broaden this understanding, Davies sees the need for artistic discourse in the West to review the history of the understanding aesthetic phenomena. Such a review, admittedly, would be difficult to conduct in the West, because such a review must be more than a return to the nineteenth century, when all the Western art traditions began. Yet, Davies feels that such a review is still possible in non-Western societies, where the relationship between aesthetic phenomena and the experience of beauty are still captured in artistic endeavors. Davies is certain that amongst the aesthetic properties that are generally related to social and cultural contexts, there are trans-cultural aesthetic properties that exist both in the West and in non-Western societies. Davies believes that these trans-cultural aesthetics are universal. 6
The batik works by Nia and Ismoyo display these trans-cultural aesthetic properties. They originate from an understanding of aesthetic phenomena in the non-Western world that include more than just visual appearances. These two artists employ this understanding of aesthetics not only for their own expressions, but also to communicate with indigenous Australian textile artists in an artistic experiment that has continued for 11 years and has produced a hybrid form of batik. In their learning and teaching processes, Nia and Ismoyo have not only combined two different textile techniques originating from different cultural backgrounds, but they have also uncovered aesthetic similarities between the contributing cultures. With ease, they perceive this wider concept of aesthetic phenomena in any traditional art form.
Davies does not contemplate the possibility of this kind of collaboration, as he interprets artistic phenomena in non-Western societies as related to tradition. Davies does not consider the current development of art in non-Western societies today. Nia and Ismoyo, however, are contemporary artists who are familiar with Western concepts of art. Their works present individual expression. The art in which they believe—whether based on the art of batik or on current artistic perceptions—is Art, with upper case ‘A’. They are aware of Western and non-Western artistic sensibilities.
The works by these two artists are paradoxical, as they both believe in the concepts of art that have developed in Indonesia, which refer to traditional arts without being fully traditional. Moreover, they also understand art in the Western sense without being thoroughly Western either. Such a paradox can be understood if we turn to history and review these artistic concepts.
The Indonesian term, “seni” is considered the equivalent of the English “art.” However, seni has its own nuances, which distinguish it from “art.” Unlike the word “art,” seni in Indonesian is rarely used to indicate an item. It is most often used to specify artistic realms—for example, seni rupa, which refers to the “art of [visual] form”. The clarifier refers to the resulting artistic product, e.g., seni patung (sculpture), seni musik (music), seni tari (dance), etc. The perception of seni in Indonesia places emphasis on the experience of beauty. Discourses on seni focus more on the mental activities that are related to the encounter with beauty, the sense that involves emotions, intuitions, and thoughts. The definition of seni in the Indonesian dictionary mentions a skill that forms the basis of exceptional acumen involved in the process of expression, which will be reflected in the extraordinariness of a work of art. The understanding of seni indicates that the artistic allure of a work depends on the artist’s personal development and not on the manifestation of the artist’s insight. A painting, sculpture, or drawing does not reveal more artistic allure in comparison to a piece of textile or keris (Javanese ceremonial dagger). With the term seni, all works of art are able to reveal their “extraordinariness.”
In Indonesia, the term ‘seni’ has a long history. In Javanese culture—one of the hundreds of rich ethnic cultures in Indonesia—the term kagunan is closely related to seni. It can be traced to the era of the Javanese literary classics of the early nineteenth century and was recorded in Baoesastra Java, a dictionary of Javanese compiled by W.J.S. Poerwadarminta in 1937. The Javanese palace culture was not indigenous and born purely of internal cultural dynamics, but rather emerged during the colonial era and was supported by the Dutch colonial government for political and economic reasons. This “new” culture strengthened the position of the nobility and utilized the people’s obedience toward them to create a work force. The Javanese kingdom lay at the heart of the Dutch colonial government. This fact significantly affected the evolution of Javanese culture, which was systematically constructed by the nobilities of the Surakarta court, Javanese literati, and Dutch experts on Java. They employed Western perspectives in explorations and study of myriad aspects of Javanese culture, including literature and Old Javanese language. Although still displaying traces of the original Javanese culture, the classical period of the nineteenth century was influenced by a new awareness of developments in the West. The evolving culture, however, was not a reproduction of a Western culture; aspects of the West were translated, transformed and assimilated into a hybrid culture of classical Java.
Indications are that the term kagunan first appeared in the nineteenth century, along with the inception of the Instituut voor het Javaansche Taal (or the Institute for Javanese Language) in Surakarta in 1833. In 1840, the institute became the Institute of Javanology under the Royal Academy in Delft, the Netherlands, and two years later it was incorporated into Leiden University. The basis for the term kagunan was the tradition of artes liberales, which itself is a translation of mousike techne, and it was not influenced by the concept of “high art,” which was based on concepts of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Scheler, and was written about only at the end of the eighteenth century and disseminated in the early nineteenth century. 7
Kagunan indeed bears resemblance with the term mousike techne. The root of kagunan is guna, which has the connotation of character, expertise, benefit, and usefulness. Such undertone resembles what mousike techne implies—i.e. “useful and beneficial work.” The Baoesastra Jawa glosses kagunan as (1) intellect; (2) useful and beneficial work; and (3) the revealing of one’s mind and cognition through beauty (drawing, carving, poetry, and song). Here, intellect refers to a state of contemplation (which is similar to what is implied by the English word “muse”), a mental activity that is differentiated from rational thinking and physical labor. Akal-budi, or the concept of kagunan, betrays local beliefs and is related to “virtue,” which is the moral basis for Javanese philosophy, comprised of beliefs in goodness, wisdom, and a sensibility to reach to a higher level of consciousness. Mental activities related to this state of contemplation are distinct from activities of our rational minds. It is important to note that this state of mind is similar to sensitivity and, thus, to feelings of beauty.
These local nuances did not emerge out of a void. Although they might not have been as complex as the ideas that formed the basis for the concept of “high art,” there were also profound thoughts behind the term kagunan. These thoughts were reflected in the views of the Javanese intellectual, writer, and philosopher, Raden Ngabehi Ronggowarsito (1802–1873). Ronggowarsito was an important figure in the translation of ancient Javanese manuscripts into modern Javanese language. He was an important resource for the Dutch experts and the Javanese nobility in the process of molding the Javanese palace culture. The University of Leiden invited him to become a professor of Javanese language, however Ronggowarsito declined the offer.
Ronggowarsito was known as an author who consciously kept his distance from the knowledge and scientific methods of the West. As the son of aristocratic parents, he had the rare opportunity to attend a Dutch school, however his parents chose to send him to an Islamic school, Pondok Gebang Tinatar, led by the eminent Imam Besari. Ronggowarsito was the last bard of the Javanese palace at the time when the palace was still the center for Javanese literature. There was a subsequent shift in Javanese literature post-Ronggowarsito, as the Dutch colonial government introduced Western principles into the cultural institutions, which then rivaled the palace as the center for cultural developments. 8
Ronggowarsito created a new Javanese literary model by using local concepts, while simultaneously employing the Western tradition of writing in prose. His works became the first body of Javanese literature that gained an international audience. His views on kagunan, therefore, are important. He associates kagunan with his philosophy of widyatama, which was recorded in the Pustaka Purwa Raja. 9 This philosophy consisted of two parts— kawicaksanaan (wisdom) and widyantara (knowledge of life)—which formed the basis of education and science. In reference to kawicaksanaan, the first part of widyatama, Ronggowarsito delineates the equilibrium in a life centered on Divine Presence. He describes both the physical and spiritual (mental) aspects of piety and identifies the human tendency to seek perfection, which he refers to as rasa sejati (union with the Divine Being), through transcendental meditation.
In discussing the second part of widyatama, i.e., widyantara, Ronggowarsito puts forth his views on the categories of life, including material objects, the biological realm, and the human domain. In his exposition on the human domain, Ronggowarsito defines the difference between bodily sensations and immaterial sensibilities. He proceeds to delineate the many levels of human sensitivity—this is important for the understanding of guna and kagunan. These sensitivities include instinct, passion, sense of decency, sense of beauty, and some transcendental senses. The fundamentals of widyatama clarify aspects of kagunan, especially in relation to the sense and perception of beauty. This is reflected in how kagunan refers to cognition. Ronggowarsito’s conception of kagunan is evident in widyatama, and one can see how his interpretation of the term reveals some underlying conflicts. 10
Ronggowarsito may have realized that the term of kagunan was a translation of a Western understanding of art that did not exist in Javanese culture. He stated that the understanding of intellect contained in the term kagunan could threaten efforts toward communion with the Divine. Use of intellect might give rise to arrogance and a wish for recognition. [Compare this to the understanding of art in the Western culture, which sees the artist as a genius.] Ronggowarsito’s philosophy, which encompasses the concept of kagunan, can be read as art ideology (in Indonesia), arising from thoughts regarding spirituality, aesthetics, and philosophy. The formation of this ideology reveals an awareness about these artistic conflicts and represents an effort to assimilate them. The conflict between Javanese and Western cultures is reflected both in Ronggowarsito’s life and his comments on kagunan.
This Indonesian ideology indicates that the sensitivity behind kagunan was not divine revelation (or Platonic inspiration) handed down to humans; rather, it was a mental capacity that was employed in the process toward achieving perfection and transcending to union with the Divine. The value of a work of art depends on the level of the artist’s sensitivity. The artist’s expression thus reflects mental achievements and the work is not centered upon the artist, but rather, pertains to responsibility and morality.
When Indonesians adopted the term seni as the translation of “art”, the term kagunan was also considered in the process —proof that multiple concepts about art and aesthetics grew out of local ideology.
Indonesian artists unconsciously absorb this ideology of art through common intuition of the cultural process and a common linguistic sensitivity in discerning the meaning of “art.” We can test the artistic creeds of Indonesian artists to this understanding of “art.” Thus, expressions in Indonesian artworks—from the subtle, erotic, as well as those with political content, in paintings, sculptures, installation works, and batik—are rooted in morality. Batik works by Nia and Ismoyo are not an exception.
In clarifying the basis for their artistic expressions, Nia and Ismoyo admitted to believing in perfection without aiming to achieve it. “We are aware that perfection lies in the distance; we believe in the nature of life where humanity is not perfect. We surrender ourselves to the forces of nature without asking where they will take us.” These two artists, however, also believe in human creativity as part of the natural cycle. “The chain of cultures in which incarnations and re-incarnations represent the history of human presence in nature can provide an inspiration to understanding the equilibrium of the universe,” they explained. 11
Considering their belief in destiny — because of humanity’s inability to oppose nature — it is possible that their works reflect an aesthetic experience inspired by the intangible. In such an aesthetic experience, there are no clear boundaries between experiencing and understanding the universe. This encounter with beauty also implies that there are no boundaries between the realms of the tangible and intangible. It is possible that this is precisely what is missing in the understanding of the “aesthetic experience” in the West, which is centered on the material world and the conception of humanity as a determining force in the universe.
Further examination is necessary to determine whether, as reflected in the works of Nia and Ismoyo, aesthetic experience can be a basis for trans-cultural aesthetics. Nevertheless, their commitment to demonstrating how the understanding of art is transformed in intercultural processes can at least bring greater awareness to the complexities of art in our world today.
Jim Supangkat is a freelance curator and writer who has been a pioneer in describing the background and direction of Indonesian art. He has received the prestigious Prince Claus Award from Holland for his relentless struggle on the behalf of Indonesian culture.