Thursday, October 06, 2011

Batik, Batak, Batak, Batik

Last night MJA Nashir’s mother showed me her old batiks: one from Cirebon and the rest from Pekalongan, beautiful old batiks as they are seldom, if ever, made anymore.

We had just arrived from Yogyakarta. I hadn’t been to Pekalongan since 1980. At that time I fell in love with the colourful batiks that are typical of here. MJ de Raadt-Appell’s book (in Dutch) entitled De Batikkerij Van Zuylen te Pekalongan, was published in that same year but I didn’t find out about it until considerably later when both Rita Bolland and Harmen Veldhuisen asked me if I was related to Eliza van Zuylen Niessen to whom De Raadt Appell had dedicated her book. I had never heard family stories about her, and knew of no family members except my uncle who had been to Indonesia. I did not believe that I was related to this talented and now-famous woman.

Eliza Charlotte Niessen was born on 23 November 1864 in Fort de Kock (now Bukit Tinggi in West Sumatra), a century and six days before I was born. She married Alphons van Zuylen from Pekalongan. Her sister Christine married Jan van Zuylen, his brother. Christine moved to Pekalongan and one of her sources of income was a small batik workshop. When, in due course, Eliza and her family also moved to Pekalongan she helped her sister with the batik. Eventually, she started to produce it on her own turf. Eliza gave birth to twelve children. She was widowed in 1918 at the age of 54 and the war put an abrupt and ugly end to her batik workshop. It was plundered and destroyed by the Indonesian freedom fighters and she and her daughter Clementine were imprisoned. When Eliza became ill, they were transferred to the Franciscan monastery in Pekalongan. She died there in 1947 at the age of 83 and her remains were buried beside those of her husband in Pekalongan’s European cemetery.

Eliza Niessen’s workshop was one of the most famous of its time. Her signed batiks have become collectors’ items. Harmen Veldhuisen has written eloquently about them and Rita Bolland, former curator of textiles at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, wrote the Foreword to De Raadt Appell’s book.

Thirty years after shrugging off their question about kinship with Eliza Niessen I started to do genealogical research to find out whether my black eyes originated in Indonesia. I found some records about Niessen ancestors going off to the Netherland East Indies, but I do not know what became of them. I did enough research, however, to conclude that all of the Dutch Niessens are related.

The subject of Eliza Niessen re-emerged when I met MJA Nashir, my photographer and now author of the newly-launched book about our journey together in 2010 (Berkelana dengan Sandra, 2011). His mother was a batik maker who worked for a Van Zuylen competitor, Oey Soe Tjoen. With this surprising information I was compelled to return to the famous Niessen of batik….hence this short pilgrimage to Pekalongan.

Last night was special because Nashir showed his mother his book for the first time, just as she showed me her batiks. Nashir has gone from batik to Batak. I have gone, ever so briefly from Batak to batik and it all came together around the living-room table.

In the meantime, in the heart of Batakland, our friend Restuala Namora, the central figure in the revival of Batak textiles, has just launched Nashir’s book at a gathering of government people. In a week’s time, Batak and batik will once again mingle when he weds his love from Solo. Batik-making is among her many accomplishments.

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