The techniques, symbolism, and culture surrounding hand-dyed cotton and silk garments known as Indonesian batik.
Shrouded in Eastern mystique, the exact origins of batik are not entirely clear. The traditional practice of painting cloth with wax to create an intricate dye-resistant pattern is known to have been practiced for centuries in regions of Asia and the Middle East, but experts agree that the technique reached Indonesia via maritime trading routes around the seventh century. It is here—in particular on the islands of Java and Bali—that the skill has reached its pinnacle of accomplishment and become known by the name of batik, taken from the Javanese word tik, which means to dot.
British artist Marina Elphick has been working with batik for nearly thirty years and specializes in the creation of finely detailed batik portraits. She describes how the intricate art is created in stages, sometimes taking several weeks or months to complete. “The process needs very careful planning because the finished design is created almost in reverse,” she explains.
The batik process requires the application of a pattern to fabric, usually cotton or silk, using hot fluid wax. The cloth is then dyed, but the wax-painted areas resist the dye, creating a relief design on the fabric. Beautiful, multicolor batiks are created by repeating this process; additional areas of the design are drawn in with wax to protect them from the next application of dye and the fabric is then re-dyed, gradually working from the palest shades to the darkest. When the design is complete, heat is used to remove the wax and reveal a richly detailed textile.
The beauty of the end design relies heavily on the creator’s ability to control the flow of hot wax during its application. In Indonesia, it is a skill practiced by both men and women, but as handmade textiles expert Diane Gaffney of Textile Traders in the UK explains, they each use different tools, giving rise to distinctly different styles of batik.
The first tool is known as the canting and consists of a small copper container with a fine, pen-like spout, which allows a freehand application of hot wax onto fabric draped over a frame. The finished batik is finely detailed, often with exquisitely intricate flowers or butterflies worked into the design. Traditionally created by women, it is known as batik tulis and demands infinite care and skill to produce, so it can take weeks or even months to complete the end product, depending on the design and size of the cloth.
The second method used is the cap—a stamping tool usually crafted from copper, which is dipped into the hot wax and pressed onto the flat fabric. This method is used by men and is much faster, but is still requires a high level of skill.
Both these techniques have been used for the decoration of Indonesian clothing and textiles for hundreds of years but more recently, a growing number of artists have started to create contemporary batik artwork, which has opened up new routes for a medium that is heavily steeped in tradition.
In 2013, Elphick was awarded The Thetis Blacker Temenos Batik Scholarship, which allowed her to spend time with batik workers in Java and Bali. She was able to able to explore the current direction of Indonesian batik and gain an insight into its cultural importance.
“I soon realized that batik textiles are not just decorative, but have deeply spiritual and cultural roots. There is a tradition of using motifs and symbols that dates back to ancient times,” she explains.
During her trip, she met with the esteemed artist Agus Ismoyo, who works with his wife Nia Fliam and a team of artisans at their fine art batik studio Brahma Tirta Sari, in Yogyakarta, in the cultural heart of Java. For many years, they have engaged with batik communities in Indonesia and worldwide to widen their understanding of ancient batik traditions and the origins of its symbolism.
“Batik is a very important element of the Indonesian culture. It is classified as a resist textile, but in fact it is an absorbing technique. In batik, the cloth absorbs the dyes and wax but also absorbs the cultural values of the Indonesian people,” says Ismoyo.
As he talks, it becomes clear that the thousands of motifs used in Indonesian batik designs have profound spiritual origins and great cultural significance. “Prior to the Indonesian Revolution in the late nineteen forties a set of designs that had been created for royalty were known as ‘the forbidden motifs’,” he explains.
Nowadays, the restrictions on their use have been lifted and the motifs may be used by anyone, but Indonesians still have a great respect for them and their appropriate use. For Ismoyo, these ancient motifs are a constant source of inspiration and he is keen to promote his vision that something contemporary can come out of tradition.
This fusion of past and present is also reflected in the growing trend towards collaboration between modern artists and traditional batik workers, says Elphick.
“Strong abstract pieces often call for the application of wax with large brushes, which is very different to the traditional batik methods, but I was interested to witness a lot of collaboration between artists and the village ladies who are experts in tulis work, resulting in a wonderful juxtaposition of the modern and traditional in one work of art.”
Unfortunately, like many ancient crafts, modern life itself represents the greatest threat to the future of traditional batik. As better paying jobs become more widely available in the cities, fewer young people are attracted to the work. There is also tough competition from screen-printed imitation batiks, which can be produced for a fraction of the cost of authentic batik.
However, Gaffney and Elphick, both of whom are members of The Batik Guild, explain that since UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in 2009, there has been a resurgence of interest and national pride in authentic batik.
“Batik is a huge employer in Java, so it is massively important to the area,” says Gaffney. “The government has now introduced a scheme known as ‘Batik Friday,’ to encourage everyone to wear batik on that day if they can.”
These days, batik is even influencing cutting-edge catwalk collections. “Fashion designers can make really bold statements with batik fabric,” explains Elphick. “It’s wonderful to see new batik trends flourishing.”
Look out for examples of the most ancient motifs, which were once known as ‘forbidden motifs’ but may now be used by anyone. They are still held in the highest esteem and have strong spiritual and cultural importance.
This is a geometric motif in the ceplok category. It has a circular shape and is thought to be based on the Areca Palm blossom. Originally worn only by the Sultan and his family, Kawung is a motif imbued with a concept of power and is strongly associated with the transformation of universal energy and the sacred origin of human life.
This motif has a diagonal design depicting a weapon or knife, though early forms of it look much more like an image of fire. It was once worn by warriors of the court and is believed to carry the energy of fire and bring the wearer enthusiasm and a burning will.
Perhaps one of the most sacred of the forbidden motifs, the word semen comes from the word semi which in Javanese means growth and many believe to be a motif that symbolizes fertility.
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