Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Pekalongan 2023: Where Batik Lives

Yesterday Pekalongan’s magic emerged for me again. This time it was in the meeting room of the Batik Museum.  When the batik maker Lim Po Him spoke I realized I was once again in the heart of passion. Afterwards Pak Sapuan explained that Lim Po Him frequently cries when she talks about her batik enterprise, a kind of trademark! He asked her whether she was crying from happiness or sadness or pain. It was unclear; it was all jumbled together. It seemed to be pure passion: gratitude, an expression of her great struggle, her success, the meaning of her entire life.  

“I have been able to live because I sell batik.” She explained that her father began the enterprise out of desperation and he started from ‘0’; he had to learn batik from scratch. (Tears of empathy). He died when she was just a teenager (tTears of sadness and shock) and she took over. She bore the responsibility for keeping it going (Tears to mark the struggle and the fear). Everything she knew was from him; he was her teacher (Tears of nostalgia and acknowledgement). Now she had white hair and she was grateful that she was still able to make batik. (Tears of gratitude.) Endlessly grateful. Even though it was difficult to survive. (More tears to mark her struggle.) Despite corona. She had managed to get through the pandemic with her workshop intact. (Tears of gratitude and pain.) Batik was her entire life: her upbringing, her relationship with her father, her avenue to learn about life, her repository of passion, aesthetic and skill, her pride, her success, her love. Oh yes, and her income. It was not a ‘business’ in any cut and dried ‘rational’ sense. It was her entire life.


This is the magic of batik in Pekalongan. I am not writing about the Pekalongan where batik is the centre of trade. I write about the Pekalongan where batik is inscribed on the hearts of the ones who wield and guide the wax pen (canting).


Pak Sapuan spoke with a kind of meta-voice. He revealed that that only five batik workshops where the wax pen is deployed (rather than the print production) had survived corona. It was a quiet fact. He did not complain, but this fact told me enough about the pain. Even here in the batik centre of the world! My heart dropped down to my sandals. It had been a ‘lockdown’ of craft. Lim Po Him’s words had revealed how profoundly hearts had been broken, how unwillingly the traditions severed, the immensity of the loss.


The first time I met Pak Sapuan was in the home of Ibu Fathiyah, about 12 years ago. That was when I encountered the vibrancy with which a textile tradition can live in a community. Ibu Fath had invited batik makers and they brought their favourite ancient batiks with them. Everybody discussed them avidly and shared stories of their families as batik makers. I referenced that meeting during my talk: “I grew up in Canada. There clothing and textiles are what one buys, wears and throws away. They are dead. Here in Pekalongan, they are alive. They are treasured and discussed. They bring their owners in touch with their forefathers and their histories. Here people live through their cloth.” That was the first time I experienced Pekalongan’s magic. Pak Sapuan referenced my words. They had struck a chord. Some people recorded Lim Po Him while she was speaking. She was voicing the essence of batik in Pekalongan. It was an historic moment.


Afterwards a young man came to me and said that there was also an exhibition of promising new batik talent in the museum. He took me to see two of his pieces on display. Such extraordinary talent! Falahy Mohamad is an architect, a textile design student devoted to his batik tradition, an artist learning about natural dyes. His batik deployed intricate geometry combined with the ‘buketan’ or flower bouquets that, since colonial times, have come to characterize the batik of the Pekalongan area. Most important, he is an aspiring batik maker and he faces an economic system that is hostile to art, particularly of the craft nature. He asked me for advice and I felt the enormity of his question. Two young colleagues were with him facing the same challenge and hoping for a golden bullet.


I suggested that they band together, make a community, survive through collective strength and action. Going it alone is not an answer. Later when I was interviewed for the batik television channel I was clear that a tradition that was ancient and vibrant should not be allowed by a government to suffer and die because of an economic blip. The young man’s appeal rests heavily on my heart. I know that an art form cannot survive on alms and donations and an occasional sale; it has to be part of the fabric of society. Is his only avenue for survival the high-end art market for rich collectors? Both of his batik pieces on display took two years to make and they reveal spectacular talent. Artists such as this deserve a prize and a path, not looming destitution. These are the treasures of humankind. More of Lim Po Him’s tears should be of joy.

Thank you to Arief Dirhamsyah of Pekalongan Heritage and the Pekalongan Batik Museum for putting on the informal discussion about batik on Sunday 29 January, and for including me in it. One of Stephanie Belfrage's batiks was in the Museum show about the Chinese tradition of batik in Pekalongan. I had returned this batik to the public collection, at her behest, some 7 years earlier. For a more complete account of this history, see MJA Nashir's writing