Since Batik was established as the world’s intangible cultural heritage by Unesco in 2009, we have seen a nationwide revival of the traditional textile. Almost everywhere in Indonesia, in malls, offices, gatherings and parties, we can see men, women and kids dressed in batik.
And yet, the revival has done little to improve the livelihood of batik artisans in the country. Batik-making remains a long, tedious, as well as under-appreciated process. Although more people wear batik these days, they are still reluctant to pay a high price for them. Instead, they prefer printed batiks, which, at a glance, look like hand-drawn and hand-stamped batiks, but are much cheaper.
As the result, textile and garment businesses flourish, while batik home industries are struggling to cope and survive.
“Many young people refuse to continue their parents’ and grandparents’ profession as batik artisans,” said Japanese batik expert, Fusami Ito. “They’ve seen for themselves how little the profession does to improve their families’ welfare.”
It is indeed ironic how the Indonesian traditional heritage is dying in the midst of its nationwide euphoria.
The 65-year-old has dedicated more than four decades to Indonesian batiks.
Ito’s love affair with Indonesian batik started in high school, when one of her teachers showed a piece of batik to her class.
“There were intricate and dense patterns drawn all over the cloth, tropical flowers and animals drawn in unique artistic arrangements,” she said.
Ito then continued her studies at Joshibi University of Art and Design in Tokyo. And yet, she found it hard to forget Indonesian batiks.
So, at eight-months pregnant, she left for Yogyakarta and stayed at the house of a local batik artisan to learn more about the traditional art.
“As I studied its backgrounds and philosophies, I was drawn by the depths of its culture,” she said.
Traditional batik artisans usually fast and pray before they sketch sacred motifs onto the cloth. Many of them still believe that such rituals would bring good fortune for those that wear it.
“When I touch a piece of hand-drawn batik, I can sometimes visualize the background of its production and the prayers being offered in making it,” Ito said.
Since then, Ito has been dedicating her life to studying and developing Indonesian batiks.
In spite of its elegance and delicacy, it is hard for batik to compete against the massive onslaughts of textile industries in this modern age.
Batik’s handmade intricacies, which are its main strength, are also its weakness. Its volume of production and precision can never match those of machines.
This fact makes batik artisans feel that they are fighting a losing battle.
Some batik artisans, who have been working their craft for many generations, have lost some sense of respect for their profession.
“I’ve seen that sometimes [traditional artisans] draw batik while eating or doing other household chores,” said Ito. “It might hamper their concentration and affect the quality of their products.”
Some batik processes are also not environmentally friendly.
Many batik home industries use dangerous chemicals to dye the fabrics. And what is worse, they sometimes dispose of their wastes onto the rivers, polluting the natural environment in their own surroundings.
That is why Fusami Ito, Japanese batik enthusiast Reiko Sadiah Barack and businessman and former minister of trade Rachmat Gobel, set up the Cross-Cultural Artisan Association (CCAA) in October 2014.
“We all love Indonesian batiks,” Reiko said. “And that’s why we want to take batik to the next level.”
Under CCAA, they started the Batik Renaissance project, which is designed to rejuvenate Indonesian batiks by using high technology and improving the mindset of the batik artisans.
CCAA invites textile experts from Japan to impart their knowledge and skills to groups of batik artisans in Solo, Central Java, and Madura in East Java.
These experts also impart traditional Japanese principles in working, which is normally known as the 5S, in order to improve the level of competitiveness of Indonesian batik artisans in these fast-paced modern days.
The 5S stands for Seiri (Tidiness), Seiton (Orderliness), Seiso (Cleanliness), Seiketsu (Standardization) and Shitsuke (Discipline).
The Japanese experts also work together with Indonesian batik artisans to marry Indonesian and Japanese traditional patterns.
The results of their collaboration are exquisite. They were presented in the exhibition in the Multifunction Hall in Plaza Indonesia, Central Jakarta, on Oct 13 – 14.
During the two-day exhibition, the multifunction hall at the mall displayed 295 pieces of textiles and scarfs, 18 kimonos, as well as upholsteries, purses and greeting cards by Indonesian artisans under the Batik Renaissance project.
Their batiks, made in soft pastel hues, featured Indonesian traditional patterns, such as kawung (palm fronds) and buketan (floral), as well as Japanese traditional motifs of sakura flowers, fishes, clouds and rivers.
Japanese ambassador to Indonesia, Tanizaki Yasuaki, applauded the collaboration between Indonesian and Japanese artisans in the Batik Renaissance project.
“I’m so happy with the collaboration,” said Yasuaki. “It’s a meeting point between Indonesia and Japan.”
Yasuaki admitted that he, as well as many other Japanese people, also loves Indonesian batiks and wears them to formal events in the country.
“I think one of the reasons why Japanese people love batik is because it represents the rich cultural diversity of Indonesia,” he said.
Yenny Wahid, daughter of Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid who came to the exhibition, also praised the collaboration project.
“It’s a wonderful project, uniting two great nations with an haute cultural expression, batik,” said Yenny.
“We should really be grateful that a foreigner [Ito] is interested to perpetuate and develop Indonesian batik as the world’s [intangible heritage],” Yenny continued.
Batik Renaissance textiles were quite highly priced between Rp 800,000 and Rp 20 million ($58.58-$1,465). And yet, on the first day of the exhibition, about half of the collection was already sold.
“We will use the proceeds from the exhibition to continue the project,” Ito said.
Next, CCAA will collaborate with Yayasan Dian Desa, based in Yogyakarta, to develop eco-friendly dyes and techniques in making batiks.
“We have to keep exploring batik and its techniques to answer today’s needs,” said Anton Sudjarwo, founder of Yayasan Dian Desa. “Unless we keep updating batik, it may become obsolete and remain only in museums.”
CCAA aims to present a couple of exhibitions, featuring Batik Renaissance pieces, each year in Indonesia and abroad. Through these exhibitions, the foundation hopes to introduce the newly improved Indonesian batiks to wider international markets.
“Our goal in this project is to improve the livelihood of Indonesian batik artisans, as well as their pride in the traditional art,” Ito said.