Saturday, May 19, 2012

Batik ArtCloth from South-East Asia
Art Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

It is always interesting to look at the art of different cultures. Artists are blotters – they soak up images at a prolific rate. For example, Picasso discovered sub-terranean African art and then transformed it using his own signature.

Australia's geographical and cultural position is unique in many ways. It is basically a European culture, albeit that its first born were not - they are Aboriginal. It has small, growing Asian and Islamic communities because of where it sits geographically. It is near large and small Islamic communities, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and to a much lesser extent the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Whilst Aboriginal Australia had contact with the Indonesians long before European settlement, Batik was not imported into Australian Aboriginal Art until 1971 (see below). There is a vast difference between Islamic Batik ArtCloth (Indonesia and Malaysia) and that of Aboriginal Australia. The former cadenzas are more formal, more rigid in design, with a lot of emphasis on the use of stencils, whereas the Batik cadenzas of Aboriginal Australians are instinctive, raw and fluid in contrast (see below).

There is no better text on Islamic Art and Civilization in South-East Asia than that by James Benner, Crescent Moon (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2006, ISBN 90 7308 3030 6). It is a must buy for your ArtCloth library.

The book goes well beyond Batik ArtCloth. It contains works on: body adornment and jewellery, Islamic manuscripts, metal work, paintings, performing arts, ritual weapons and arms, sculpture, embroidery and other surface designs on textiles, trade cloths, woven textiles, ceramics etc. There are essay contributions from seven leading experts in the field.

This review focusses on some of the Batik ArtCloth works to whet your appetite and it does not contain any of the other areas that are comprehensively dealt with in the book – the lack of coverage should further encourage you to purchase the book.

18th Century Royal Banner, Jakarta Textile Museum (Indonesia).
Handspun cotton, silk, natural dyes, batik, mordant printing.
Size: 322 cm (width) x 172 cm (length).

Simply put, batik is a method originally used in Java (Indonesia) to generate colored designs on textiles by dyeing them, having first applied wax (i.e. resist) to the parts to be left un-dyed. The origin of Batik is not definitively known, although it can be traced back to Asia, India and Africa. Some say that the word is of Malay origin meaning to “write” or to “dot”.

Islamic Batik ArtCloth Works of South East Asia
The existence of South-East Asian wealth had been known to the Middle East since the Greeks and Roman times. In the first centuries after Muhammad’s death, Muslim boats began exploring this region. Islamic traders also acted as Muslim spiritual teachers and so became pivotal in the spread of Islam within this archipelago.

In central Java (Indonesia) the ascension of Sultan Agung (1613-46) marked a turning point in Javanese cultural history. It created the environment, which generated a rich aesthetic, as expressed in the Batik style of textiles that reflected the dichotomy between the conservative agricultural community and the outward looking world of its trading port communities.

Late 18th or early 19th Century skirt cloth or shoulder cloth (National Gallery of Australia). Handspun cotton, natural dyes, batik.
Size: 90 cm (width) x 290 cm (length).

The export of locally made Batik ArtCloth from the north coast ports of Java and Madura to neighboring regions in the archipelago formed an important part of inter-island trade throughout the Dutch colonial period.

Late 19th Century Shoulder cloth (National Gallery of Australia).
Cotton, natural dyes, batik.
Size: 90 cm (width) x 205.3 cm (length).

An essential component of early palaces are the fragrant gardens (taman sari), which aimed to recreate a paradise on Earth. It was a place for contemplation and so had water features, groves, flowers and a menagerie. It was a place for the Sultan to harness temporal power through mystical means. The Cirebon Batik below depicts a forest rocky landscape populated by fantastic creatures.

19th Century Skirt cloth (National Gallery of Australia).
Cotton, natural dyes, hand drawn batik.
Size: 98 cm (with) x 220 cm (length).

The early 19th Dutch colonial rule was brutal and so resurrections against Dutch oppression were commonplace and their heroic struggles featured on various Batik ArtCloth pieces. Prince Dipanagara jihad against the Dutch reflected the merger between the identities of a warrior with that of a traditional Islamic spiritual practitioner. The subject of the ArtCloth piece below is of his jihad against the Dutch, which had become encased in folk law.

Baby-carrier and shoulder cloth (National Gallery of Australia).
Cotton, natural dyes batik.
Size: 98.5 (width) x 296 cm (length).

Family is central to any religion and Islam is no different. The birth of a child is sacred the moment the child is born. The father whispers the call to pray in the child’s ear, and from that moment on, every step in the child should be marked with belief.

The inscription at both of the ends of the baby-carrier below is a pray invoking the name of Allah and the prophet Muhammad.

Early 20th Century baby-carrier (National Gallery of Australia).
Cotton, natural dyes, hand drawn batik.
Size: 75 cm (width) x 278 cm (length).

The development of calligraphic imagery made a very important contribution to textile arts, in that the use of textiles in life ceremonies could now be punctuated with literal expression of Islamic beliefs. In the Batik ArtCloth below, some of the verses from the Qur’an that are inscribed on the cloth are readable from the front and/or from the back of the cloth.

19th Century ceremonial drape or shroud cloth for bier (National Gallery of Australia).
Handspun cotton, natural dye, batik.
Size: 106 cm (width) x 228 cm (length).

The use of a variety of textiles to cover the body prior to burial is an important feature of the Islamic funeral rituals held in the home and during the progression to the gravesite. Qur’anic law stipulates that the actual internment cloth be of a simple white. As the cloth below is not white, it is believed that it was over-dyed after its arrival in Aceh (Indonesia).

Ceremonial drape or shroud cloth for bier (National Gallery of Australia).
Cotton, natural dyes, batik, calendaring.
Size: 87.4 cm (width) x 220 cm (length).

This is book is a great addition to your ArtCloth library especially with how much information it delivers on the ethnographic environment in which these Batik ArtCloth and other art relics were created. Contrast these Batik works of art with those Batik ArtCloth pieces generated by the Australian Aborigines:
ArtCloth From Utopia
Aboriginal Batik From Central Australia
ArtCloth From Tiwi Islands
Stanley and Tapaya – Ernabella Arts.

You really get a visual understanding of the differences in belief systems, values and the way of life embraced by these peoples of neighboring regions. Their environs were so different that it not only impacted their life styles, but also their belief systems and so their art.

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