n Hendra Gunawan’s Woman with Batik Robe, a figure garbed in a prismatic batik fabric stands at the edge of a lofty cliff gazing off into the distance towards a vista of mountains and water. She drapes her sarong around her shoulders in an unconventional manner, revealing its riveting ancient motifs and symbolic design elements. To help uncover the mystery and meaning behind the garment, Modern Art specialist Rishika Assomull asks fashion designer Didiet Maulana to offer his insights. Founder and designer of fashion brand IKAT Indonesia, Maulana has observed the production and design of traditional textiles for many years. He is a member of Indonesia's Dewan Kerajinan Nasional (National Craft Board), which aims to preserve and foster the development of Indonesian crafts, including batik.
The painting transports the viewer to a different era, when people had fewer distractions and could focus on the fine details of life. Hendra Gunawan shows his appreciation of Indonesian culture in this painting. He perceives batik as more than a mere piece cloth. The artist reveals an extraordinary proximity to the cloth, painting the pattern with such fine detail, care and familiarity. For Gunawan, batik could come to represent everything.
Click on the 'hotspots' to read Maulana's analysis of the painting and the batik garment depicted within it:
- Woman with Batik Robe, Executed circa 1960s
"In her expression is a deep sense of longing as her mind travels to a peaceful place. The way that she is smiling, with her upper lip curling ever so gently upward, and her soft faraway gaze, suggest that she is in a state of complete serenity."
- Day and Evening Cloth
"The Kain Pagi Sore or 'Day and Evening Cloth', also known as Kain Siang Malam or ‘Day and Night Cloth’ incorporates two different designs into one cloth; one side represents 'day,' while a contrasting pattern on the reverse side signifies 'evening'. The two aspects differ in color, with the lighter pattern worn on the outside in the daytime, only to be reversed in the nighttime to reveal the deeper hues. The convertibility of the Kain Pagi Sore is highly appealing; its efficient and versatile design is part of its charm. In this painting, the 'day' portion is the segment of the cloth with the off-white background, while the 'evening' section is the red-and-blue background. Visually, it is beautiful. You can see the red lining between the two parts influencing each other."
- Bamboo Sprout Tips
"The batik garment has a 'head' and a 'body'. In the present lot, the head at the edge of the batik bears a pattern called Pucuk Rebung or 'Bamboo Sprout Tips'. The pattern is significant because it represents one’s vertical connection to God, as well as the power that emerges from within."
- Wearing the Cloth
“The batik cloth graces the majority of the painting, filling the space in a way that amplifies the message from the painter through its pattern and color… The woman embraces her batik cloth as if it were something dear to her. There are many ways to wear this garment. In this painting, the way the woman wears it wrapped around her has the advantage of showing the intricate patterns of the cloth – both 'day' and 'night' as well as 'the head.'"
"The white background is called Bledak, which symbolizes happiness and the purity of the soul. Amongst the decorative motifs presented here are the hong bird (phoenix), the centipede and the shrimp."
"Evening is represented by the darker half of the cloth. The blue color is usually made of tarum (indigofera tinctoria), as the leaves and twigs of this indigo plant can be used as a dye for batik. The red color is typically made of secang (caesaslpinia sapapan lin), as part of its bark to can be used to produce natural red batik dyes."
- Coastal Batik
"I believe the cloth in the present lot is an example of a coastal batik pattern, which is a type developed along coastal areas, especially centres such as Lasem or Cirebon. For example, Lasem is a coastal town located in between Central and East Java. It was once an important harbor and trading city; many traders coming to Java would embark from Lasem. Thus, coastal batik is strongly influenced by concepts and aesthetics from China, Europe and the Middle East as well as elements of local culture."
- Mythological Creatures: Synergy from the Heavens
"Originating from ancient Chinese folklore, the hong bird (feng huang or phoenix) is a mythological bird that represents the heavenly power accorded to the empress. As it possesses both male and female elements, it has long been considered a manifestation of harmony in yin and yang."
- Insects: Independence and Auspiciousness
"Centipedes are considered auspicious symbols. Their many legs allow them to move fast, so in the batik patterns they have come to represent independence and the ability to elude misfortune."
- Sea Creatures: Abundance and Joy
"Emblematic of fertility and water, the shrimp as well as other sea creatures are popular decorative motifs in coastal batik patterns. The shrimp is considered a symbol of happiness and abundance."
Batik is a storytelling medium. Sometimes you needn't speak so loud. Instead, let the patterns express your feelings. That's what my grandmother would say to me, and this idea inspires me.
The word “batik” originates from the Javanese word “ambatik,” which combines "amba" (wide or large) and “tik” (dot). According to Maulana, the word “tika” is mentioned in the ancient Javanese manuscript Kakawin Ramayana, which was written during the Hindu Mataram Kingdom, dating back to the 9th century. Fascinated by a tradition more than 1200 years old, Maulana founded IKAT Indonesia a decade ago to preserve the heritage of batik tradition while also imbuing it with his own, fresh perspective.
The popularity of traditional garments has only increased in recent years, says Maulana, citing the younger generations who now proudly wear batik at fashion week and international designers who embrace these traditional patterns. While there has been a resurgence in the popularity of batik, Maulana has adored this ancient art form since his childhood; his grandparents would often share with him the bountiful stories behind the batik patterns they wore and instill in him a deep appreciation for the painstaking and arduous process behind batik production. For the past five years, Maulana has dedicated his time to researching and studying batik design in coastal areas, working alongside artisans in Lasem.
For centuries, batik has seamlessly interwoven elements of history, spirituality and beauty into a long cultural thread, inspiring 9th century artisans, 20th century modernists such as Hendra Gunawan, and now contemporary designers like Didiet Maulana who carry the tradition forward into the next generation by conceptualizing these ancient designs with their own, contemporary visions.