“When you meet [a batik maker] and hold their hands, they feel so warm and sticky. It’s a very beautiful feeling,” said Singaporean artist Samantha Tio, known professionally as Mintio.
It was this feeling, she said, that inspired the title of her exhibition “Malam di Jari Kita,” or “The Wax on Our Fingers,” held in collaboration with Indonesian artist Budi Agung Kuswara, known as Kabul, and the batik makers of Kebon Indah in Central Java.
The Indonesian Heritage Society in Jakarta was given a preview of the show as part of its Rumahku program this month before it opened to the public in Yogyakarta in April.
Mintio is a fine arts photographer whose previous work has explored urban landscapes and the connections between spirituality and the cyber world. Kabul is a Balinese painter whose work appeared in the first Jogja Biennale in 1988 and has been exhibited in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Speaking to the Rumahku members, the artists said they were drawn together by questions about their own art practice. “In Bali, I came from a spiritual and traditional background,” Kabul said.
“When I went to the Indonesian Institute of Arts [in Yogyakarta], it was a different atmosphere. There, the artists mainly used art to explore social and political issues … but once the work was sold, the impact was limited to the artist and the buyer.”
Mintio had similar questions about the reach of her work. “I graduated with a major in fine art photography and have practiced as an artist for three years, but the work has only been for white walls in a gallery,” she said.” I asked myself if there was a way to make art that is more accessible to people.”
Working together, the contemporary artists wondered how to make something traditional like batik appeal to the eyes of a younger generation. They also wanted to explore the role of women as “culture makers” in Indonesian society, and their roles within their families and villages.
These questions took Kabul and Mintio to the village of Kebon Indah, where the traditional batik-making technique of batik tulis, whereby patterns are handpainted with natural dyes, survives.
Mintio spent two months looking for a community with which to collaborate, and said she spent hours on the back of a motorbike. “I didn’t choose the village, I think it chose me,” she said. “It is a very open village. Our contacts, Ibu Sumina and Pak Kardi, were very modern in their thinking, and when we arrived, we were so warmly received.”
About 350 women in Kebon Indah make batik, most of them between the ages of 30 and 70. But Kabul and Mintio noticed that children were not learning the craft.
They spent time with the batik makers, who demonstrated their intricate art. Colorist Kardi took them for a walk through the forest, pointing out the natural sources of their dyes.
In a process which takes about two months for each piece of batik, the fabric is washed and prepared, then coated with a paste of tapioca flour and water before a pattern is traced by hand and the natural beeswax applied.
The fabric is then dyed and dried 20 to 30 times. But most batik-making communities have moved away from these age-old techniques with the introduction of mass-produced and synthetic dyes.
Kabul and Mintio took photographs of the batik makers, some of the portraits taken at a makeshift studio in the fields, and printed them on fabric. The batik makers then worked on their own portraits, adding batik motifs of their choice.
“Initially it was difficult to explain what we wanted to do,” Mintio said. “At first we must have looked like children trying to play … trying to break the composition of the batik to make room for the photos.”
When it came to the question of which portraits to print, the batik makers themselves “told us what they liked.”
Mintio said this led to discussions about their identities as women. “We heard wonderful stories about where they lived, and life in the village,” she said.
They also learned much about the intricate social hierarchy surrounding batik. “Batik is an age-old system,” Mintio said. “[Each piece] goes through many hands.”
Integral to this system is the codified use of symbols. In contrast, the women’s collaboration with Mintio and Kabul gave them a different outlet for their creativity.
“They had freedom of expression on how they wanted to represent themselves, and its a chance they would not normally get,” Mintio said.
This creativity means the work shown at Rumahku varied widely. Some portraits were bordered with animals. Others featured intricate foliage. One displayed three generations of a batik-making family.
Eventually Mintio and Kabul hope to sell the work as a complete collection that could tour to Singapore, Australia and elsewhere.
“We believe these women belong together,” she said.
The Wax on Our Fingers
Launching April 7, 7 p.m.
Open from April 8 to May 7
iCAN (Indonesia Contemporary Art Network)
Jl. Suryodiningratan No. 39, Yogyakarta
Rumahku is a program that invites experts to speak on various topics for members of the Indonesian Heritage Society. To find out more about the program, visit www.heritagejkt.org.