Indonesian Batik is an interesting subject to explore in this context, because the richness of the art form is precisely a result of a type of globalization. Java was long a crossroads for many cultures – from the early Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Central Java to the later Muslim sultanates across the island, from communities of Chinese emigrants to colonial European residents. The art of batik is thus not a ‘pure product’, but the result of the meetings of different groups and the mingling of ideas, motifs, and symbols.
The exhibition Batik: Spectacular Textiles of Java, at the asian art Museum of San Francisco, features a number of exceptional textiles. The batiks, drawn from the collection of Joan and M. Glenn Vinson, Jr., give a glimpse of the remarkable stylistic diversity and hybrid nature of batik production on Java. Examples from the Central Javanese cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta are colored with natural brown and blue dyes and display the abstracted patterns typical of the region. In contrast, textiles produced along the north coast often have a broader palette of both natural and chemical dyes and bear patterns echoing inspiration from a wide range of cultures.
No one knows when or where people first began ornament- ing textiles by using wax to resist the penetration of dyes. The method was practiced in ancient Egypt and many parts of asia. But it is on the island of Java that the technique has reached the highest level of complexity. The origins of batik in Indonesia are ob- scure. Textual references from the 12th to the 14th centuries describe colored and patterned cloths, but we cannot be certain if the wax resist technique was used to produce them. One theory sug- gests that the practice of hand drawn, natural dyed batik textiles – like those still made today – developed during the early 17th century in the courts of Central Java. From there the tradition spread to the north coast, where European, Indo-European, Chinese and arab communities eventually became involved in the manufacture of textiles.
an alternate theory is suggested by the scholar Rens Heringa, who posits that batik may have initially developed along the north coast, and then spread to the courts of Central Java and coastal urban trading centers. She has proposed that the hand woven and batik patterned cloths of the kerek region of East Java are a direct descendant of this earliest north coast style of batik production.
One remarkable textile in the Vinson collection seems to confirm Heringa’s theories about the early roots of north coast batik. It is a large hand woven cotton cloth, patterned with wax resist, dyed with indigo, and embellished with gold (fig. 1). Carbon dating reveals a date of approximately 1675-1750, mak- ing it one of the earliest surviving examples of Indonesian batik. The textile was collected on the southeast coast of Sumatra, but scholars believe it may have been produced along the north coast of Java, perhaps in the city of Cirebon. The textile’s motifs suggest that it was exported to Sumatra for a Chinese patron.
Many aspects of the cloth are unusual: its size, the fact that the wax resist was only applied to one side of the textile, and the combination of motifs. The textile’s unusually large dimensions (approx. 1.7 x 2.7 meters) suggest that it was not used as a gar- ment, but instead displayed in a ceremonial context. Rows of squares divided diagonally into smaller triangles stretch across the entire cloth. Within the triangles are dozens of motifs. among the easily recognizable designs are Chinese decorative motifs like butterflies, bats, bags of money, and flowers, as well as abstract patterns such as those used in Central Javanese batik.