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Researching batik in Java

Last year I was awarded a grant from the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial award scheme, which is administered by the Art Fund, to explore contemporary batik in Java, Indonesia.

Batik is produced by drawing wax onto cloth and then dyeing it, the wax protecting parts of the cloth from the dyes. Repeating the process can produce complicated and sometimes stunning multi-coloured patterns.

The Horniman's batik collections have grown quite a bit recently, but does batik carry the same significance as it did in the past?

My journey started with two of the most famous centres of production, Kedungwuni near Pekalongan and Trusmi near Cirebon on the north coast. Here some of the finest batik is produced, in workshops run by Javanese as well as by Chinese Indonesians. I found that it is still possible to buy batik altar cloths, used in the temples at Chinese New Year.

In Yogyakarta, perhaps nowadays the most famous centre of all, I spent several days filming the batik process, for a possible future exhibition. This included both hand drawn batik and the less painstaking variety where the wax is stamped on by hand. At the Winotosastro workshop conditions are very good, and the batik is produced to a very high standard.

There is a growing market for batik made from natural dyes, so many producers have some examples on display. For ceremonies, though, the actual design is more important than whether the dyes are natural or chemical. Most designs have meanings, and are used for particular occasions. Those associated with weddings and childbirth carry the most significance, and though not everyone knows the meanings, the specialist organisers of such ceremonies always make sure that the right ones are used.

In outlying villages, some batik producers are churning out low quality batik in conditions which leave a great deal to be desired. Workers unprotected from the chemical dyes and dangerous conditions would not meet the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive. The Indonesian government tries had to regulate production, but there is still much to be done.

The last leg of my journey took me to the less well known workshops of Pacitan, Banyumas and Garut. In Banyumas I came across the Hadi Priyanto studio, where some of the most exquisite designs I had come across were being made. Customers come from a long way to purchase cloths from this producer, and examples of their finest work are now finding their way into museums.

Many collections of batik in European museums contain examples where the name of the maker, the name of the design, and most importantly the significance were never recorded.

This trip gave me the opportunity to gather this kind of information so that for any future exhibition at the Horniman we will have all these details at our fingertips, to pass on to visitors wanting to understand the role played by this lovely fabric in Javanese life.