New exhibition at Textile museum: The development of Jakarta batik

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Ferry Farharti Ganis, Head of the Jakarta branch of the National Crafts Council cuts the traditional "nasi tumpeng" or "yellow rice mountain" at the launch of the exhibition. From left to right: Tinia Budiati, Head of Jakarta Tourism and Cultural Service, Ati Siregar, Head of Wastraperama, Ibu Ferry, Esti Utama, Head of the Textile Museum and Sri Sintasari from Wastraprema. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – The new exhibition at the Textile Museum entitled “The Development of Jakarta Batik” celebrates the 42nd anniversary of both the city of Jakarta as well as Wastraprema the oldest society for Indonesian textile lovers. When former Governor of Jakarta Ali Sadikin created the Textile Museum in the 1970s by providing it with its current buildings, Wastraprema made the museum possible when its members donated their textiles to the museum.

At the launch last Tuesday, the exhibition was opened by Ferry Farhati Ganis, the wife of Jakarta Governor, Anies Baswedan. Ibu Ferry is head of the Jakarta branch of Dekranas or the National Crafts Council and she was accompanied by the Head of Wastraprema, Ati Siregar as well as the Head of the Jakarta Tourism and Cultural Services, Tinia Budiati and the Head of the Textile Museum, Esti Utami.

In her opening speech Ibu Ferry explained that she had been raised in Kuningan, West Java and that as a child she remembers how the batik peddlers used to come to her house carrying their batiks on their backs and how they would unfold each of their batiks for her mother to choose from. “It is also the meaning and symbolism of batik that often makes it so special. Here in Jakarta for example we have the Batik Peta Sila which pictures the history of Jakarta from the time it was referred to as Nusa Kelapa during the Kingdom of Pajajaran until it became Jakarta.”

In the past Jakarta has never been seen as much of a batik city as very little batik was produced there. After independence that began to change, not so much because more batik began to be produced in Jakarta – in fact the opposite occurred when the few workshops producing batik in Jakarta slowly began to shut down – but because as the capital of an independent Indonesia, Jakarta began to set the trend in batik design through designers such as Ibu Soed, Iwan Tirta, Obin etc and was influential in promoting the use of batik as the textile most representative of Indonesia. The exhibition highlights batiks from famous Jakarta batik fashion designers and the role of Jakarta Batik was further discussed at the talk with batik experts held last Saturday.

The exhibition starts with the batiks of Saridjah Niung or Ibu Soed as she was popularly known. It was Ibu Soed who created the “Terang Bulan” or “Full Moon” batik design which was so popular in the 1950s. Batiks using this design are very sparsely decorated with only ornamentation along the edges and corners of the batik. The remainder of the batik is usually coloured but left blank or only slightly decorated. The most attractive of Ibu Sud’s “Terang Bulan” batiks on display is a red batik with small golden structures resembling stylized buildings along its edges. The vacant red centre of the batik is sparingly decorated with elaborate gold stars. Her mustard yellow “Terang Bulan” batik edged with blue and gold phoenixes is deeply attractive in its subtlety. Ibu Soed popularized the Terang Bulan batik in the 50s and 60s and it was only in the70s and 80s that they lost their popularity.

Ibu Soed was primarily known as a writer of children’s songs and few people are now aware that in the 1950s after independence she also designed and produced batiks or that she sold beautiful batiks in her shop Arti Warna (The Meaning of Colour) that were both her own creation as well as the batiks of the famous Go Tik Swan.

In the exhibition are some fine examples of Go Tik Swan’s batiks. He was born to a distinguished Chinese family (descended from Luitenant der Chinezen on both his mother and father’s side) in Surakarta. However, he was raised by his grandfather who had several batik workshops in Solo. As a child he played amongst the batik crafts women and learnt not only about batik and the process of making it but also Javanese myths and legends. Prince Hamidjojo, a son of Paku Buwana X who graduated from Leiden in Indonesian studies was also a Javanese classical dancer who held Javanese dance lessons at his home which Go Tik Swan attended. Later he studied literature at the University of Indonesia specializing in Javanese literature. He was said to have been more Javanese than the Javanese and received several titles from the Solo aristocracy with whom he was very close. His final title was K.R.T. Hardjonagoro.

During President Soekarno’s time in office both Ibu Soed and Go Tik Swan were very much involved in activities at the presidential palace. In the early years of independence President Soekarno was concerned with creating an Indonesian identity beside such regional identities such as Javanese or Sumatran. With this in mind he asked Go Tik Swan to help create a batik that would not represent a certain region but Indonesian as a whole. Go Tik Swan created a batik which was an amalgamation of the serious and demure batiks of central Java with the vibrant and playful batiks of the North Coast and this became the Indonesian batik which the President presented VIP visitors with. Goh Tik Swan believed in a concept of cultural development rooted in existing culture referred to in Javanese as “nunggak semi”. He died in 2008 while, Ibu Soed had already passed away in 1993 but her granddaughter Caramanita continues her batik manufacture and shop till today. They both inspired the next generation of batik producers and fashion designers of the 1970s which included such figures as the unforgettable Iwan Tirta.

Iwan Tirta who was originally known as Nusjirwan Tirtaamidjaja had a Javanese father who served as a justice of the Supreme Court and a West Sumatran mother. He was born in Blora, Central Java and first studied law with degrees from Yale, LSE and the University of Indonesia. He wanted to become a diplomat and worked for a number of years at the UN but then changed course completely and became a fashion designer using primarily batik. He began seriously studying the design, motifs as well as the process of creating batik. Iwan Tirta was an advocate for batik which he promoted internationally through magazines and fashion shows. He became known in 1994 when he designed the batik shirts worn by heads of state at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia.  Nelson Mandela as well as U.S. President Ronald Reagan were among his clients. He was very critical of the mass produced, printed batik over the traditional, handmade cloth, “They say *creative economy’, and that’s a contradiction. When the word economy comes into it … you reduce everything to money.” Several of his batiks are on display at the exhibition. He died in 2010.

Sri Sintasari who is better known as Ibu Neneng, from Wastraprema spoke at the talk on Saturday and explained that in the 1970s it was former Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin who popularized batik again. “In the 1970s men always wore suits at formal events. Then one day Ali Sadikin noticed that there was one man at a formal meeting who was not wearing a suit but a long sleeved batik shirt. When asked why he was not wearing a suit he responded that he could not afford one. Ali Sadiki thought about it and decided that it would be a good idea to allow men to wear batik instead of suits if they wanted to. Iwan Tirta began producing truly beautiful batik shirts for men and President Suharto continued the tradition.”

Josephine Komara also known as Obin, is perhaps Jakarta’s most important textile designer and has been passionate about promoting traditional Indonesian batik techniques for years. Her textiles not only use batik techniques but also special hand spun weaves creating perhaps the most exquisite textiles in Indonesia which are sold at her Bin House shops. She has clientele and admirers all over the world and an Obin exhibition attracts viewers not only from Indonesia but globally. There is unfortunately, only one Bin House batik at the exhibition but it is a vision of elegance and beauty.

Another well-known Jakarta batik designer was Norma Makarim, a lady of Arab descent who was raised in Pekalongan, a batik town on the north coast of Java. It was here that Ibu Norma learnt how to make batik and began a batik business. Her batiks were sold in one of Jakarta’s most well-known shops at the time: Toko De Zon in Pasar Baru. She designed the batiks together with her sister Mahani Makarim who continued to live in Pekalongan where the batiks were produced.

Makarim’s son Nasir Achmad who continues her batik business explained, “My mother’s batik designs were influenced by Chinese and Javanese motifs and designs. She lived for a while in Bogor and had many clients and friends in the wealthy Kedung Halang area who were Chinese.  She sold them wall hangings, table cloths and sarongs and from them she learnt about Chinese tastes. She also bought some of their old altar cloths or wall hangings to study their motifs and colours.

The Javanese motifs she learnt while living in Peklongan and she liked to use them in her batiks. For example, the “tumpal motif” frequently appears in her batiks however instead of simply decorating the triangles she drew animals in them. My mother loved animals and they are characteristic of her batiks.”

Nasir Achmad reminisced how former deputy prime minister and head of the Peoples’ Consultative Assembly, Chaerul Saleh helped his mother gain entrance into the Jakarta elite who became her customers. “My mother’s family in Pekalongan knew from far back and once hid him when he was being chased by some people. He never forgot so when my mother came to Jakarta he became her protector and helped her find customers. One of her clients was the famous textile collectore Nian Djoemena who wrote the first books about batik. They became firm friends and my mother is mentioned in her book. The former head of the History of Jakarta Museum, Aji Damais also advised my mother about design and colour.”

After Norma Makarim died, her son Nasir Achmad took over the business. Like Iwan Tirta he too studied law but he had been close to his mother and she used to discuss her designs and motifs with him and through her he slowly learnt about the batik. All Norma Makarim’s batiks are “batik tulis” (handmade batiks).

Ibu Neneng said, “Norma Makarim’s batiks were known for having so many very bright colours which was loved by Jakartans. This means that her batiks had to be dyed several times which usually makes the batik more fragile and easily torn but this was not the case with her batiks. Also she knew off her head how long to submerge the batiks to get the different shades of colour.”

Ibu Neneng also commented on Norma Makarim’s use of the “tumpal motif” and pointed out a batik of Norma’s at the exhibition which consists of many “tumpals”. Usually the tumpal motif is only used on one panel of the batik referred to as the kepala or head. “This is such an extraordinary batik and no one else has used the tumpal motif in such a way. Perhaps this should be regarded as the Jakarta motif,” suggested Ibu Neneng.

The batiks of several other Jakarta batik designers are on display at the Textile Museum and another who needs to be mentioned is Budi Dharmawan who founded the Komunitas Batik Palbatu or Palbatu Batik Community in Jakarta. When UNESCO granted Indonesian world heritage status as intangible heritage, Budi realized that what was meant was also the process of making batik. He became concerned that UNESCO might revoke batik’s world heritage status when he realized that the batik producers in Jogjakarta which held the title of being world batik city, were becoming less every year. So, he decided to create a batik community in Jakarta so there would be new batik craftsmen. Why Jakarta?

“Because it is the main market for batik producers all over Indonesia. If the Jakarta consumers make a mistake like for example preferring printed batiks to traditional handmade batiks it will be a disaster for the batik industry,” Budi Dharmawan explained. He chose the Palbatu area in the Menteng Dalam area because it was centrally located but still had the aspect of a nicely ordered village. First he brought 18 batik craftsmen from various batik towns. They stayed with the villagers and held exhibitions. By 2014 the Palbatu residents wanted to learn batik making and now there is a thriving community of batik makers there and Budi Dharmawan has set up the Rumah Batik Palbatu where the batik are sold. He has made similar batik communities in other towns such as Tangerang and Depok.

“The motifs of batiks are about identity,” commented Budi DHarmawan. “So you cannot recreate a Cirebon batik in Jakarta. You need to use Jakarta icons and motifs such as the ondel-ondel, the tari topeng or Jakarta mask dance, etc. In the end it’s like in the old saying, ‘Batik is a prayer’.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)