Unprecedented circumstances may have inspired the Indonesian Ambassador to the US – the charismatic and forward-thinking Dr. Dino Patti Djalal – to initiate the American Batik Design Competition in early 2011. One is the fact that US President Barack Obama actually lived in Indonesia for 4 years and has an Indonesian half-sister, thus enriching him with first-hand experience of the country, culture and language. Another is the fact that batik was officially recognized as a living expression of the culture of Indonesia in 2009 when United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I was invited to be among the judges who selected 8 finalists based on my study of batik and years of work in Indonesia. The Indonesian judges were apparently not aware that batik has had a lively American life since it caught fire in the crafts revival of the 1960s. I was honored to share ideas with the contest team and thrilled to review the many interpretations of the theme to select my top choices – one of which was Kelly Cobb’s design. Her story follows, below. – SDA NewsBlog Editor Leesa Hubbell
“The 21st century will be an era of confluence and fusion between cultures. This is a perfect time for the rich heritage of Indonesian batik to meet American contemporary design.”
– Ambassador Dino Djalal
In early summer 2011, I found out (through the International Textile & Apparel Association) about a batik design competition called American Batik Design Competition (ABDC) sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, DC. To celebrate the new US-Indonesia partnership, the Republic of Indonesia’s Ambassador to the US launched a nation-wide contest to design ‘American batik’. It offered an unprecedented opportunity to create, innovate – and maybe even win a trip to Indonesia.
I had learned the basic process of batik – hot wax applied as a resist to cloth that is dyed – as an undergraduate at Maryland Institute, College of Art. The communicative power of batik, an art form that permeates Indonesia culture and society, compelled me to enter the competition. More than just a method for embedding pattern into cloth, it’s a living symbolic language with regional inflections of color, process and technique.
With my entry, I hoped to build a bridge spanning cultures and generations that would speak to Indonesians as well as an international community of textile lovers. The ABDC theme was “The Spirit of America in the Heritage of Batik” meaning batik design with an “American spirit and values, drawing from its history and folklore”. All ABDC competition entries had to be in the format of the Indonesian kain panjang (literally “long cloth”) skirt/wrapper worn by both men and women on many islands in this 3,000-mile wide archipelago. The competition invited Americans to take this traditional 3 meters of cloth to new places in contemporary expression.
My design was inspired by the trader batiks shown in the Batik Gallery on ABDC competition website. This genre of batik seemed to readily adapt to the needs of whatever culture and region it moved through. It also seemed democratic and accessible to all people.
In that spirit, I adapted a very contemporary American symbol, the QR (Quick Response) code, into a textile design. A QR code consists of black and white squares arranged within a larger square frame that can be read by a smart phone. It is a prevalent marketing tool, having been integrated into both traditional and interactive campaigns. QR codes are free and are being used to interpret natural and historical points of interest on nature trails and walking tours by adding to or replacing expensive signs.
I used one as the main motif of my batik design so that, in theory, when scanned by a phone it takes the viewer to a website that features the design and that 1) defines the process and history of batik, 2) gives an overview of the history and culture of Indonesia and 3) informs the viewer about my design work. I called my design Indigo Batik with QR Code; you can find out more about it at qrbatik.tumblr.com
First Round of Judging: A “People’s Choice” design was chosen (2nd from right in photo) during the Indonesian Festival in Washington DC in July 2011, from designs that were digitally printed on paper and displayed. Later that summer a panel of batik experts (including 3 Americans) and Indonesian cognoscenti selected 8 additional finalists – this time by viewing the digital images online.
I was contacted by Dara Yusilawati, the very positive, high-energy Third Secretary of Economic Affairs to the Indonesian Ambassador, and asked if I could simplify my design to make it fit the parameters of actual batik production. I was surprised, delighted – and overwhelmed by the task. It is my understanding in hindsight that all finalists worked with the batik experts and producers to make their designs “batik-able” – meaning simple enough to be reproduced by hand using tulis (hand drawn technique) or cap (copper stamp; pronounced “chop”) tools.
I immersed myself in a lengthy process of shaping my design to fit the 8” x 8” size (due to weight limitations) of the cap and devising a sequence of colors that would pre-dye and over-dye within a range that fit the Pantone system and complied with the batik atelier’s capabilities. My design was 1 of only 2 designs to be realized using the stamped wax method of batik. Throughout the process I was most fascinated at the labor involved in handcrafting the copper cap that would print fabric with high-tech code. Imagine for a minute the contrasting systems of time at play between the hours of hand-crafting an intricate copper stamp that prints a wax pattern on cloth and the instantaneous transmission of data via QR code that links that patterned cloth to batik information on the internet.