Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pulang Kampung in Pekalongan

In a blog last February, I revealed that a woman in Australia had asked for my help to return her beloved traditional textiles to Indonesia. She had collected them in Indonesia in the 1980s and was now moving house and downsizing. She wanted to give them back to Indonesia precisely because they were so important to her. I agreed to do what I could.

When I wrote that blog I was loath to disclose details about my ruminations because they had not yet become solid plans. Now, some 9 months later, I am thrilled to share the story of how Stephanie Belfrage’s textiles have found a new home in their country of origin. (There are more textiles in the collection about which I am still ruminating and composing plans.) The story of the repatriation of Stephanie Belfrage’s batiks became front page news in Indonesia. The textiles were received more enthusiastically than I could ever have dreamed would be the case.

Article in Metro Pekalongan on 24 September
announcing the plans to return Stephanie Belfrage's textiles.

Article in Kompas Newspaper 2 October

Stephanie had five North Coast batiks in her collection. When she wrote to me, I had just returned from a visit to Pekalongan to explore the haunts of the famous batik maker, Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen. I had met dedicated members of the Pekalongan Heritage Community and had been given an impressive tour of Pekalongan’s beautiful Batik Museum. I was inspired to dream up a strategy in which the return of Stephanie’s batiks would also promote the goals of my new friends.

Mas Arif beside a batik made by Eliza van Zuylen
Arif Dirhamzah was a key player in the strategy and the reason for its success. A leading member of the Pekalongan Heritage Community and reporter and adviser for the Pekalongan radio station, his network was extensive. His dedication, however, was the most important factor. He had been my host in Pekalongan and now he was my contact. I said that I wanted to give the textiles to the Pekalongan Heritage Community. I trusted this Community to  find an appropriate final destination for the textiles. Mas Arif went to work immediately exploring the option of the Pekalongan Batik Museum. The Heritage Community is a young and informal group and I hoped that by way of this transfer they would gain profile and stature in the community and also the Museum. Moreover, I wanted there to be a public record of the transfer.

The Mayor's representative spoke about the importance of
heritage and the successes of the museum.
Mas Arif obtained the green light from the city's Mayor and subsequently from the museum. When I finally arrived in the City of Batik, as Pekalongan dubs itself, at the end of September, everything was set. On October 1 a ceremony was held in the museum auditorium with many reporters in attendance as well as important leaders in the batik community. The Mayor was not able to make it personally, but he sent an official to represent him. The Museum director, Ibu Tanti, was our host as well as Pak Dojo, the municipal officer who held the museum portfolio. We took our place behind the table at the front of the room. 

I showed the audience the poster of the Pulang Kampung
project that was designed by MJA Nashir for our exhibition
in Erasmus Huis, Jakarta (2011)
I delivered a short speech about my Pulang Kampung project, the importance of preserving and sharing heritage, and about Stephanie Belfrage (the little that I knew). I then handed the textiles over to mas Arif. In turn, he passed them on to the man representing the Mayor. They were then transferred to the museum.

I passed the textiles to the Pekalongan
Heritage Community
Mas Arif then passed them on to the city
in the person of the Mayor's representative
The enthusiastic audience begged us to open the boxes and show them the textiles.
Museum director, Ibu Tanti, was pleased with the quality of the textiles
and the reaction that they received from the audience

The Mayor found time to visit the museum shortly afterwards and requested that Stephanie Belfrage's textiles be placed on display immediately

As pure luck would have it, the following day was National Batik Day marking the anniversary of UNESCO’s official recognition of batik as important intangible cultural heritage. 

The day was being celebrated in grand style in Pekalongan with an enormous batik market kicked off by national political leaders. Mr. Hatta Rajasa, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs, would be visiting the museum and the Mayor would show off the gift. The Mayor, therefore, was  able to make some political hay from Stephanie Belfrage’s gift.

The museum director issued an official receipt for Stephanie’s batiks.

In all, the transfer was satisfying because Stephanie’s gift gave so many times and so well! 

An additional delight was the involvement of Greg Roberts, the courier of Stephanie’s textiles from Australia. A passionate aficionado of North Coast batiks, he had supplemented Stephanie's package with a copy of the exhibition catalogue of his own collection: one for the museum, one for the Pekalongan Heritage Community, and, I am very happy to say, one for me. It is a beautiful book!
I told my audience about Greg Roberts' batik catalogue.
Batik of Java: poetics and politics, 2010
Calounda Regional Gallery touring exhibition
Greg Roberts and Ian Reed Collection


  1. A great story! I love the way that one gift gained so much momentum! Returning heritage to the community which originally generated it is something that all of us collectors should think about. I have an Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen batik sarong in my collection. When I am ready to relinquish it I must think seriously about returning it to its 'home'.

  2. I agree! This provides a wonderful example of how to 'repatriate' textiles and renew their usefulness in the society of origin. Congratulations to you, Sandra, Stephanie, and those in Java who will benefit from this bequest.