In 2020, Smithsonian artisan engagement managers Mimi Robinson and Lesli Robertson teamed up with the Textile Society of America to host virtual conversations with artists and makers from around the globe. Their goal was to create a platform designed to share their creative practices while also exploring the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented. Textile artists and designers Jo Smith of Ock Pop Tok, Renny Manurung of Dame Ulos, Adil and Zakiya Khatri, and Nia Fliam Ismoyo all discussed their techniques and positions in the textile-based craft economy, as well as their struggles to grow in the space created by the global pandemic.
Their project prompted questions about what is possible in the digital world. They provoked important conversations about how engaging with newer forms of media could lead to reimagining the world and all its potential.
In other words, these artists discussed how they embraced and understood the surprising new doors that the pandemic has opened.
This article in particular follows the story and creative digital explorations of Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam Ismoyo—two of the artists featured in Robinson and Robertson’s digital project. These two Indonesia-based batik artists have been working together in their studio since 1985. Batik is a method of resist textile dyeing that is achieved by adding alternate layers of wax and dye to a fabric to produce elaborate designs. Before coming to Indonesia, Nia completed her fine arts degree in textile design and studied textile traditions of Africa and Asia, while Ismoyo (who typically goes by his last name) comes from a long line of batik makers from the city of Surakarta on the Indonesian island of Java.
Batik’s significance is embedded deeply in Indonesian history. In an interview in May, Ismoyo and Nia recalled a description of this practice in the sixteenth-century Javanese text, Suluk Ambatik, which explains that cloth weaving and batik dying are interrelated processes. However, the text also describes batik not only as an art form, but also as a method of individual character building.
In 2009, UNESCO added the art of Indonesian batik to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ismoyo and Nia explained this intangible value, which goes well beyond the physical steps of dyeing.
“The creative experience of making batik is an absorbing one,” they wrote to in an email. “The wax, the color, and the cultural knowledge embedded in making batiks permeate the fabric through the dyer’s use of the elements of nature: fire, water, soil, and air. Batik itself guides practitioners to enter a meditative realm where there is unity with nature. This is the intangible aspect of batik’s creative process.”
In 2005, the two batik makers, along with their colleagues Agung Harjuno and Pang Warman, founded the nonprofit arts organization Babaran Segaragunung Culture House in the city of Yogyakarta to educate others about this powerful expressive practice. Its aim is to explore the cultural traditions of Indonesia in order to gain a greater understanding of its rich cultural heritage. Through a residency program, the organization hosts various collaborations, cultural exchanges, and exhibitions. It also teaches about the creative processes that are rooted in the knowledge systems found in Indonesian traditional practices.
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made pursuing the central goals of the Babaran Segaragunung Culture House difficult, it also presented its leadership with an alternative pathway for achieving them. As they describe it in one of their informational publications, “The condition of the pandemic requires us to explore in our minds new ways of being. Life as we have known it in many ways has completely broken down. So an exploration within ourselves is one way that we can face the current conditions with a positive attitude in a circumstance of isolation.”
Prior to the pandemic, the organization had already begun experimenting with digital technology to explore the interconnectedness of batiks with multiple aspects of Javanese life. Through exhibitions at various museums, they introduced video as a method of communicating the batik process. Since then, however, this medium has taken on a new meaning as an expanded method for expression.
“We began using video as a way to portray how batik in Java has played a larger role in society,” Nia explained. “For example, batiks are integral in the knowledge systems of dance, music, and the shadow puppet traditions. Batik is a part of a multimedia performance—there are dancers, music is playing, and the musicians, dancers, the puppeteers as well as the puppets are all wearing batiks.”
These videos communicate the multilayered nature of batiks, and they result in a type of digital, “visual poetry” as Nia describes it, that encapsulates and communicates these textiles’ significance and intangible role within Indonesian culture.
“Overall, the experience of dealing with COVID-19 is a unique one,” Nia said. “We must be aware of the interesting contrast of life in this technological era. An era where our five senses are accustomed to being crammed with the latest technology, but also where many of us actually miss the stimulation of life amidst nature. We thirst for harmony, balance, and tranquility. There seems to be a tendency that the deeper our intimacy with technological progress will be, the stronger our desire is to maintain a deep connection and gratitude for nature and sources of creativity.”
“After the pandemic, we will still use video, because we can create an atmosphere that integrates sounds and visuals, like the multimedia performances of Indonesian traditional arts,” Ismoyo said. “Experiencing these elements together is essential to absorb the total life of the batik practice. With technology, all of these things can be one.”
“Batik is something that captures the spirit of Indonesian cultural life,” he added. “The intangible, like the love a father has for his son, is what makes it possible for us to live a cultural life. We also try to combine the study of oral tradition with written texts to guide our practice in order to understand the full meaning of batiks.”
In addition to this video work, since the onset of the pandemic, the Babaran Segaragunung Culture House has begun to offer their normally in-person batik workshops online and to an international audience. Their transition to these virtual productions is still in its experimental stage, and it is adapting and evolving, much like batik making itself.
In many respects, the ongoing progression of their art and teaching practices mirrors the creative explorations the organization embraces. As the Culture House explains in its informational booklet, “In these workshops, we offer tools and understanding to enable participants to carry out their creative projects using batik or other art mediums…[they] are not primarily focused on technique, but on the creative process taught through batik.”
They are achieving these goals through a variety of virtual classes, which are aimed at communicating the concepts that underpin batik’s cultural significance, as well as the actions that bring them into being. The course, “Personal Creativity Rooted in Culture,” for example, as described in their informational materials, teaches participants to “experience the intangible creative practice found in Indonesian batik” rather than providing a step-by-step tutorial on how to produce them.
“These courses are based on the founding principles of Ngèlmu Iku Kelakoné Kanti Laku, or learning by doing,” Nia and Ismoyo explained. “To achieve this requires a sense of balance gained through utilizing the body and an intuitive sensitivity (or olah tubuh/olah rasa).”
This sensitivity extends to the connection between art and nature that is mediated through batik making.
“Batik itself cannot be done without fire and the elements of nature,” they wrote. “The wax which is used in batik comes from the body of a bee, which is the product of the marriage between the bee and flowers. The wax must then be melted with fire. When we want to dye, we use colors from natural plants, which give color to the fabric. After being dyed, the cloth must be aerated so that it becomes a strong and good color. Lastly, the wax must be removed from the cloth with hot water. Only then can you enjoy the patterns created by the wax. Batik is a representation of the intimacy of life with nature.
“In the midst of technology, our lives are still surrounded by nature, whose role is very difficult to manipulate or divorce ourselves from. Although the digital era has dominated and changed various aspects of life, there still seems to be an integral connection between the human mind and natural ecology, especially in the context of exploring sources of creativity.”
“With the pandemic, we need to even more deeply connect with nature, but this is so wonderful because life’s force is never ending,” Ismoyo said in May. “No one ever really knows where exactly we will connect with nature, but this leads us to consider the connections between the physical and the unphysical. That is what we continue to study—we continue to study the tie between nature and the spirit of culture.
“To be one with nature is important, and I want to share that with others from younger generations. Lots of people in Indonesia today are so disconnected from nature. I asked someone once where rice comes from, and he said, ‘from the minimart’! But with technology, we can enhance this connection—the spirit of culture and nature are not separable. Nature has given us all life, and it is needed for cultural life to exist. These connections form the basis of creativity.”
Ismoyo sees that batik’s growth lies in its “rootedness.” He explained, “The forms of batik are always adapting, and what I see is that the seed of the batik grows while the roots spread out and downward, the plant growing taller. From this balance, the plant’s life grows and transforms from its roots.”
Growth into the digital sphere has allowed Ismoyo and Nia to continue to teach others about the value of process, the value of making that exists beyond materials and particular places. Through virtual engagement, they educate others about the nuanced and multivariate spirit of Indonesian batiks. In doing so, they demonstrate how the goal of a practice can be the process rather than the product.
Through the many works of their organization, their video explorations, and their forays into the realm of virtual teaching, the Babaran Segaragunung Culture House has perhaps shown the world a new door that the pandemic has created. That door opens onto a way of knowing that embraces works in progress, and onto a world that recognizes that things are never really finished.
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is also a visiting scholar of folklore at Indiana University.
Lesli Robertson is an interdisciplinary textile consultant, educator, and founder of Mekeka Designs, a bespoke textile studio creating with heritage materials and techniques from Uganda. As an educator and arts consultant, she works with communities across the globe to find creative ways to promote, preserve, and honor textile traditions.