Tuesday, February 9, 2010

• Introduction •

I have been in love with Batik since I first visited Java many years ago. I was still young then and didn't want to be in a long distance relationship, so I tried to focus my attention elsewhere but true love never dies. So last year I went to go study batik in Bali, Indonesia.

Although I knew that Java is in fact the heartland and center of production of all forms of Batik, I decided to go study in neighboring Bali where I had never been. Here is a 1 minute stop motion animation of a procession in Bali which I made just to get you all in the mood.(notice all the batik sarongs!)

• Batik School •

I was delighted to find such a beautiful campus filled with sculptural details the likes I had never seen. There were however some student protests and renovations going on when we first arrived (which delayed the start of the batik classes) but soon enough we were melting wax and learning patterns.
They say that we cannot escape our fate so, as luck would have it one of my neighbors was a batik fanatic and so I was able to begin learning the basics of this craft even before starting classes at school. We formed a small group who would meet twice a week as a supplement to the more formal classroom setting, and so I was again reunited with my love as if no time had passed.

• Batik Group •

When I say that my neighbor was a Batik fanatic I mean that in the best sense of the term. Master Miki is so dedicated to propagating the art of Batik, that he not only produces many beautiful Batik paintings himself but is a avid teacher offering courses to anyone who is at all interested.

Miki became the guru for our Batik group which we named "Asing Sing Anai" which in Javanese means "strange foreigners" but in Balinese means "strange but not foreign"...they like word play a lot there so I felt very clever for coming up with a pun in two languages at once..

Although our courses were very informal our Guru (teacher) was very dedicated and encouraged us to continue with the plan of an exhibition to take place in a few months time. As you may know it is very hot in Indonesia and sitting next to a small gas burning stove dipping into the hot wax was not always an appealing thought. What I found was that, given that it was so hot - what better way to wile away the hours in the shade than by concentrating on drawing with liquid wax.

• Jagir Art Show •

Months passed in this way...alternately experimenting in this informal setting and learning the more traditional patterns at school until our works were completed and it was time to share this love with the world. The exhibition took place in Miki's home town of Surabaya (East Java) in what we would call an underprivileged neighborhood. This was were Miki had grown up and so he wanted to bring some art to an area which normally has no such privilege. The week long art show was designed to make art accessible in every sense of the word.
Along with affordable art works by over 50 artistes and performances every evening, he also organized a number of free workshops.

When Miki told his neighbors that he had been teaching Batik to foreigners who would be exhibiting, 20 women immediately signed up to learn how to Batik and made pillow cases which could eventually be sold. Although Batik is still practiced all over Java, Surabaya is an industrialized town which has largely forgotten its crafty past. The art show was in its second year and was a great success with coverage in the mass media and judging by the interest shown by all kinds of people it should continue to grow in the coming years...so if you find yourself in Surabaya and have already checked out the weekly shadow puppet plays ...you know where to go (Mahotsawa Salakasa Karya Jagir).

The Batik hanging behind the chess players was made by my guru and his Batik group "Gundurukum, and is 12 feet long!

• Wayang Kulit and Batik •

Mystical Javanese shadow puppets are probably even older than Batik and very much part of the religious and cultural life of the Javanese. Some say these performances date back to prehistoric initiation rituals. It is also said that the original motifs for Batik were borrowed from the puppets themselves.

In order to cast shadows which are not simply silhouettes, the puppets are perforated into various patterns. They say that way back when, women would obtain these puppets in order to blow soot through these perforations leaving the pattern on the white cloth which could then be waxed.

Here is a brief video to give you an idea about what a Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet) show looks like. This was shot in Surabaya on Saturday night after the art show performances were done.

Wayang Golek (wooden puupets) also like to wear batik as seen in the foto above.

• Cara ngebatik or How to batiking •

Batik refers to both the process of dying cloth as well as the finished cloth. It is a process for applying hot wax onto cloth for the purpose of resisting dye. The wax can be applied using a paintbrush, a canting tool or with a copper stamp.

Types of batik are determined by the way in which the wax has been applied as well as the distinction between natural (plant, mineral or animal) and chemical dyes (extractions of extractions). The longer the process required, the more valuable is the cloth.

Although the techniques for fixing natural dyes has radically improved in the last few decades, they still require the cloth to be soaked more than once. Chemical dyes have the advantage of being widely produced (cheaper) as ready to use powders requiring sometimes nothing more than to be painted onto the cloth (faster) despite their hazardous effects.

• Batik Cap (stamp) •

Another way to speed up the process of applying the wax is by using a cap or copper stamp. This is still considered traditional although it was only introduced in the 1800s when the demand for batik was growing rapidly.

You dip the stamp into hot wax and then stamp it onto the cloth repeatedly to create a motif. The use of the cap allows traditional motifs to be produced much faster than the canting technique.

As we can see in the picture here, if the stamps are not lined up then the motif is interupted. Batik cap (stamp) are made using both chemical and or natural dyes. Printed "batik" is now produced industrially but the motif only appears on one side of the cloth (because it has been printed).

• Batik Tulis •

Which brings us to the most traditional and time consuming method of all which is called batik tulis or batik drawing. The drawing refers to the canting tool which is used. In this case the application of wax itself already requires diligence, patience and precision.

The wax must be heated to the correct temperature using a small stove (either gas or wood burning). Once the wax is a good temperature the cloth can be covered with the initial design or motif.

• Natural Dyes (organic vegetable matter) •

Traditional Batik's other defining aspect, is the dying process. The dye matter must be prepared by boiling the raw materials which can include things like leaves, barks or roots. Then cooled and strained.

In the ultra traditional method, the white cloth must be washed and dried and then hung out in the dawn hours to absorb the early morning dew which, makes the cloth ideal for receiving wax.
Once the motifs have all been painted on, the cloth is then submerged into the dye bath, hung to dry then submerged again -up to 30 times for certain dyes.
Also in between colors, the wax is applied again to cover those areas which you want to remain that color. Luckily, thanks to more recent knowledge we can now use natural dyes with only two or three soakings by preparing the cloth and then using a fixer.
In this process it is important to begin using the lightest colors first, then cover those areas and dying again using progressively darker colors. But unlike batik made using chemical dyes, the cloth must in fact be soaked in the dye-color.

The dye cannot simply be painted on.
Once the process of multiple waxing and dying sessions is done, the cloth is boiled to remove the wax.

• Some History of Javanese Batik •

Although batik dates back many thousands of years in Egypt later in China and much later still in many African countries (including Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa), it was in Java that it found its most elaborate form. Some suggest that this craft was brought to Java from India in the 13 century but there is compelling evidence from Java's neighboring islands which suggests that it was developed long before and was perhaps brought to India.

Regardless of its origin, by the 1700 it was a highly developed and widely practices art form on the island of Java. The word Batik itself is Javanese and means to make dots.

Many of the motifs have symbolic meaning attached to them which would dictate who and where any given pattern would be worn. For example the Parang design pictured here, was for a long time, reserved for those belonging to the royal court of Yogyakarta. The larger the motif, the higher ranked is the wearer.

Another example is the ngetik bunga pattern which would be worn to a wedding celebration and worn by the couples' parents. Nowadays these meanings are not strictly adhered to. It is very common to see anyone at all sporting giant Parang pattern for example.

Because of the extremely labour intensive nature of Batik, until faster methods of production (batik cap and chemical colors) were developed, Batik was only worn for ceremonial purposes, or (and) by royalty.

Photos courtesy of: "The book of Batik" by Fiona Kerlogue, Archipelago Press. 2004.

• Balinese Weavers, Natural Dyes •

Despite Miki's great experience and generosity with his knowledge there was one area in which he was not so proficient, namely; using natural dyes.
Like most people today Miki usually uses chemical dyes which allow certain freedoms. It is faster cheaper and easier to use.

I was determined to learn about natural or organic dyes so that I wouldn't have to be polluting my water source when I don't have to. After the week long exhibition in Surabaya I returned to Bali to continue attending school. There are a few people in Bali who use natural dyes but the Balinese are way more into weaving than they are into Batik.

So I drove my motor bike the two hours through the winding roads of Bali to find Pak Hendry giving his workshop in Buleleng to some local weavers who were wanting to dye their threads using natural dyes.

Pak Hendry is a legendary pioneer of natural dyes. I still had one Batik painting which I hadn't dyed yet, so I wanted to try the natural stuff.

• Java Journey: the Source of Batik Motifs •

Imogiri is where Many great central Javanese royals have been buried since Sultan Agung (Great Sultan).

People like to go there to give offerings in hope of receiving blessings from the long line of mystical sultans but mostly from Sultan Agung. This Sultanate has been caring for the well being- both spiritual as well as physical, of this land for 9 generations.

Here is where I came to meet another great Batik master.
She has produced many sarongs for the royal court of Yogyakarta, Central Java and was very generous in sharing her knowledge with me.
There are still a few people making Batik the old way but seldom did I see work as varied, refined and meticulous as Ibu's work.

I learned many things from this wonderful woman. The only drawback was that she was not particularly interested in natural dyes. So, I journeyed to see the dye master himself.

• Natural Dye Guru Pak Hendri Suprapto •

Although I learned a lot from Ibu, she was not particularly interested in the dying part of the process. I met a few people who were interested in natural dyes but mostly as artistic experimentation, So I went to see the dye master himself: Pak Hendri.
He has a small batik center in Central Java, an area renown for its batik production. Today most of it is still produced using chemical colors.
Pak Hendri is reintroducing natural dyes throughout Indonesia (as well as Japan and Australia) by traveling around giving these workshops to anyone using fabric dyes (batik or weaving).

His modest batik studio is tucked away in a small village about a hour form town, where his wife makes the designs which are drawn onto the cloth by three young women. There are also three men who do the dyeing. This is also the traditional division of labor. And after giving it a shot myself I understood why...I was very warmly received and spent a little while living with these kind folks learning as much as I could before having to fly back to Canada.

I brought back some of the raw materials necessary for making these natural dyes. I am looking forward to giving workshops in the very near future, so if anyone you know is interested please send me an email to Batikfanatik@gmail.com

• Batik Workshop in Montreal •

Je suis bilingue.