The Story Begins

The origins of “Batik Story” date back seven years to my meeting with Marina in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. The vice director of the Sabah Animation Creative Content Center (SAC3), she was a friend who wanted to try something new. We quickly joined forces to develop a media art festival. But this was a place that had no infrastructure at all for modern art, let alone media art. The students at SAC3 were struggling financially, drawing on state support for their education, and were obviously not all that interested in exhibitions or modern art. Marina and I first had the idea of developing a human resources pool: I would invite media artists and modern art practitioners to come to Kota Kinabalu from Korea, and SAC3 would hold workshops for the children to teach them methods for planning and managing international events. More ambitiously, we would also organize an international media art festival.
For five years, we worked hard running a program that was called “Playground in Island.” A number of artists and media lab members took part, including CHOI Jeonghwa, NOH Suntag, SONG Hojun, the Okin Collective, SEO Hyojung, and Bang & Lee. In contrast to the first experience, the students were on a more mature footing when they greeted the guests, and the program proceeded smoothly. In many cases, former student participants went on to become SAC3 staff. But we couldn’t organize a media art festival — or we didn’t, at least. After thinking about it, we couldn’t find any real justification for holding a media arts festival here. Why, when things were fine the way they were? Whenever I asked myself who we’d be holding the festival for, I was forced to admit — embarrassing as it was — that it was for my own personal ambitions. So I told Marina we ought to give up on it. Her response was unflappable.
“All right. Let’s go ahead and wrap up Playground in Island here. But if it’s all right, could I suggest a project?”
The project she wanted to do involved batik. A traditional Indonesian art of hand-dyeing, batik has a name that comes from the Javanese work ambatik, meaning spotted or stained fabric. Students at SAC3’s home institution, the Kolej Yayasan Sabah (now the University College Salah Foundation) were taught about batik, but the technique hadn’t actually been very helpful for them in their lives, she explained. But Marina wanted to work with Korean artists on exploring the different possibilities for batik as an environmentally friendly, natural approach. Before I could do anything with them, I had to learn about batik.
So it was that “Playground in Island: Batik Story” was developed in the winter of 2015 in a small batik factory in Kota Kinabalu. Artists and designers worked together from a wide range of different fields, including photography, fashion design, magazine editing, illustrating, and media art. It was an opportunity to learn about the batik manufacturing process and explore different ways that we might help. Students at the small factory make batik based on what they had learned from an Indonesian teacher named Bu Ifah. But all they were learning was the skill; they remained unaware of the history of batik, what materials were used and how they were processed — or, more crucially, why batik was important. Their inability to connect batik with their own lives may have made a certain degree of sense.

Java: Home of Batik

We were in the midst of planning Batik Story in 2007 when we received some good news: the Korea Arts & Culture Education Service was planning an Art Dream Camp program for the Pyeongchang Cultural Olympics that would allow a batik project to be organized in the craft’s home country of Indonesia. I thought it might be a good idea to bring Bu Ifah to the Indonesia batik capital of Yogyakarta, but she disagreed. Her students were running the Alam Batik Center in her hometown of Pasuruan, and she thought it would be do the program with them and the underprivileged children in the region. Not only was it my first trip to Indonesia, but I was also learning about batik for the first time, and I decided that if the goal was to help the children with their lives through batik, then it would definitely be a good idea to follow her advice. So it was that we decided to leave for a trip to batik’s home island of Java from December 01 to 07, 2016.

First, we had to organize a team. To record the local situation, Noh Sun-tag and NOH Kihoon signed on as photographers; KIM Hyung-joo, CHOI Yoonsuk, and LEE Jungwoo for video; SON Heiin as a booklet designer; MAH Soyoung as a fashion designer researching items made with batik fabric; LEE Meehye as a magazine designer for promotion; and JANG Taehoon as a designer developing the exhibition and pop-up store spaces. Running things smoothly meant choosing the right mix of people who had worked together on batik and other Kota Kinabalu work in the past and people who were joining for the first time. Perhaps the most crucial role was that of mediator for communication with the Kota Kinabalu-based Bu Ifah and the batik experts at the Alam Batik Center. Those jobs were taken on by Marina and her younger sister, an SAC3 administrator named Bibi.

Marina and Bibi’s help was tremendous. I had been able to speak with students briefly in English in Kota Kinabalu, but the Indonesian children could not speak English, and we didn’t know Indonesian. Marina and Bibi helped prepare everything — not just communication with local kids, but everything else to do with the workshops, including materials, vehicles, and lodging. Strictly speaking, the Batik Story 2 project in Indonesia was only possible because of Total Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, SAC3 in Malaysia, and the Alam Batik Center in Indonesia all working together and playing their parts like runners in a three-legged race.

Alam Batik Center: An Encounter with Batik and Local Children
After eating breakfast, I headed along a drizzly country road to Pajaran, the village where the Alam Batik Center is located. It was much smaller and humbler than the pictures I’d seen. Children sat doing batik on a floor that looked like a wooden bench. To help the program run smoothly, the center had apparently recruited participants before our arrival and given them early instruction on basic batik technique. I had only just met the students, and things still seemed a bit stiff between us. I was also flustered about how they seemed to marvel at the “gang” from Korea and how embarrassed their gazes seemed to be.

Prior to the program’s beginning, the foreigners from Korea were given a brief instruction about batik. Bu Ifah offered a friendly introduction to her students who ran the Alam Batik Center and explained to us about the batik-making process and the traditional approach to batik preservation. After that came the actual work with the children. The plan was to divide them into two groups, one making the batik and the other making a magazine about batik. The batik-making group first drew images on paper to show the story they wanted to tell about winter and snow; these were then transferred to fabric. This was dipped into a canister of hot wax (called a tjanting), and the image was redrawn along the outline. The image drawn on the fabric absorbed colors from the natural dyes — a meticulous process that required the assistance of experts.

I was curious to see how winter appeared through the eyes of children who lived in a country without snow. While they had never seen or touched snow for themselves, the children there did live in a world of developed media and knew all about snow and winter. They may have wished to touch midwinter snow for themselves, but their pictures showed something different. One student offered a particularly fascinating and memorable story. “I hate it when it snows,” the child said. “It collects on the matoa trees, and then the matoa fruit dies. Without matoa fruit, we couldn’t make batik. . . .” How foolish I had been to somehow simply expect that children in a country without snow would long for snow and winter.

The children making the magazine were every bit as enthusiastic as the ones making batik. They created pictures to show the batik-making process, and went around the village in search of batik materials to show and explain. They also interviewed each other and offered brief introductions to themselves. They made the decision to print the magazine on fabric instead of paper. It was the entire batik process all over again: drawing pictures on each page, writing the text, copying it onto fabric, writing over it with the tjanting and dyeing it. The resulting magazine was sewn together stitch by stitch into a bona fide batik journal. It was a bit of a concern that the dyed fabric took so long to dry because of the daily rainy season weather during the short weeklong schedule, but we were able to finish the batik work.

On the eve of our departure, a small exhibition for the children’s batik and magazine was organized in Pajaran’s Skolejo city hall building. An installation framework to hang their work on was made from neighborhood bamboo trees and desks in the office. It was nice to have the exhibition bring a fulfilling finish to the short schedule, but what was truly rewarding was seeing how much the children seemed to enjoy it. After the installation ended, we passed out white T-shirts. Without so much as a “Who’ll go first?” they began writing each other’s names on the shirts. The result was T-shirts bearing the names of all the participants.

Entering Someone Else’s Life

I had the opportunity to visit the homes of some of the participating children during the workshop. Pajaran, the town where the Alam Batik Center located, was not all that large or prosperous, but the villages where they lived had to be reached along winding country roads. There were no fences separating one house from the next; chickens roamed freely through the neighborhood, goats were enclosed in pens, and seemingly every home had a bird cage on its eaves. Some communities were country villages without any public transportation at all, offering no way out unless someone offered a ride on their motorbike. As soon as we arrived, the villagers raced out to look at us. Once, while I was sitting in the living room talking to the children and their parents, a gentleman who looked like a neighbor offered some mangoes he’d picked from a tree. The villagers also pooled their money to buy us drinks. The “living rooms” were really just a carpet on the ground; there wasn’t even proper furniture, let alone TV sets. Even the carpets might have been borrowed from a nearby mosque, Bu Ifah explained. Yet as poor as the people were, they never let it darken their faces. One student said they had quit school, but planned to study batik intently in order to earn money.
These were children I never would have met had it not been for the workshop. It afforded me a different kind of experience from any exhibition. But I also had to be constantly vigilant. The week we spent together might be a good experience and memory for us — but for some, it might be a matter of survival.

Postscript: Mr. Ferry the Batik Expert

Mr. Perry was a student of Bu Ifah’s. Four years before, he had come to Pajaran to open the Alam Batik Center with five batik experts and teach the craft to mothers in the nearby village. Every time they received an order, they would distribute material to the village housewives. Most of the stay-at-home mothers in Indonesia work mainly in the home. Part of this may have to do with religion, but another factor is the lack of opportunities for women who grew up in poor homes without a proper education. Mr. Ferry offered work to these women, helping them gain at least a little extra income. Not only that, but he also promotes the growing of plants to provide the villagers with batik material. One approach was to plant mango trees, allowing villagers to eat or sell the fruit and gather the unused leaves to sell to the Alam Batik Center for materials. This, too, was intended to offer a small supplement to their livelihoods. Most of the materials used by the center come from the village. Mr. Ferry said he hoped studying batik would help improve the struggling children’s lives. Of course, batik was not simply a means of making money to him. He viewed it, he said, as being like a religious act, something very spiritual. Indeed, whenever he received a batik order, he would dress up nicely and stop meeting with others for a while so that he could focus on the client’s wishes or story. Anachronistic as it may seem in an utterly capital-dominated world like today’s, I also found myself looking at his mild, happy face and thinking that might just be what that kind of world needs most.

Until We Meet Again

As I mentioned before, entering someone’s life is something that requires great care. But meetings are always exciting, especially in the way some of them bring great happiness to both parties. That’s how our brief week together went. No rain fell early that morning on the day we left our lodgings. It was sad for us to go home, but we were able to do it with a smile knowing the ten children we had met in Pajaran would soon be coming to Korea in February. I can’t help wondering how the sunny, nose-nipping winter will feel to them.

TOTAL Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea

Chief Curator
Nathalie Boseul Shin (Total museum)

Project Manager
Sean Sehwan Roh (Warmhands)

Haeun Lee (Total museum)
Maslinda Abdul Ghanie (SAC3)
Marina Abd Ghanie (SAC3)

Batik Master Trainer/Instructor
Ibu Sri Kholifah
Ferry Sugeng Santoso (Alam Batik)