Ketemu Project Space | Art, Community, Collaboration
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Art, Community, Collaboration

by Foo Su Ling. This article was  first printed in the publication accompanying the exhibition ‘Kebon Indah’.
Malam Di Jari Kita (The Wax On Our Fingers) is a series of works resulting from the collaborative efforts of Singapore photographer Samantha Tio (Mintio), Indonesian contemporary artist Budi Agung Kuswara (Kabul) and batik makers of the Sido Luhur group from the village of Kebon Indah in Central Java’s Bayat region. The series consists of eight artworks – four individual pieces, two diptych, a triptych and a quadtych – which combine the traditional art of batik with contemporary photography. In Bahasa Indonesia, ‘malam’ translates to ‘night’ but as a play of sound in the Javanese language, it also refers to ‘wax’, a fundamental material in batik production.Batik is one of two techniques employed in making the artworks, the other being cyanotype – a method of printing photographic images on to fabric – executed by Mintio and Kabul using the negatives from a large format camera. The production of each artwork starts with tracing on to cotton fabric the silhouette of a batik maker’s image, photographed earlier as single individuals or in family groups. The cloth is passed on to the batik practitioners who are invited to incorporate batik motifs of their choice on the background and in areas representing their attire. In the final stage of the process, the cyanotype technique is used to fill the silhouette with the photographed image of the batik maker.Focusing on the interactions between Mintio and Kabul with the batik makers of Kebon Indah, this essay examines the artistic and social dynamics between contemporary artists and traditional craft community, the outcomes, and considers the fluid, often unpredictable nature of such community-based art initiatives. The terms ‘artist’ and ‘maker’ and their attendant categories of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, prompts considerations into their comparability, relative status, value, and also the question of authorship. Where the lines that divide such categories are blurred, in this case through the proposition of a ‘collaboration’, in what ways can the destabilizing impact be rendered productive? Can ‘collaboration’ be conceived here as a device in democratising prevailing approaches in the production and reception of art, offering insights into the shift in artistic practice away from object production to outcomes that demand a framework of inquiry beyond the paradigm defined by ‘art’ and ‘craft’? Further, the term ‘community’ and its inference to a hermetic society bound by tradition and continuity deserves scrutiny, for it is not impervious to shifts in taste and the introduction of newer technologies to which it has the agency to respond through aesthetic choices, and economic decisions on scale and viability. In the sections that follow, we contemplate how this agency is expressed through an encounter with contemporary artists such as Mintio and Kabul, and how Malam Di Jari Kita contributes to ongoing discussions on the significance of collaborative art practices and the social and aesthetic values they generate1.

Each artwork in Malam Di Jari Kita is also a batik piece, linking it to a category of cultural material with a history of association with locales and communities; mode of production; circulation and use; and encounters with modernity, transformations and changing ecologies of the market. As part of a broader category of Southeast Asian art and folk textiles, batik formed part of an emerging discipline in the 1960s initiated by William Willets during his tenure at the University of Singapore (renamed from University of Malaya in 1962). Willets added village cloth as a category to the Museum’s collection at a time when there was little regard for crafts in museological discourses2. Art historian T.K. Sabapathy argues that with the deliberate focus on craft traditions, Willets had ‘sought fresh criteria for museum acquisitions and widened the base of art historical scholarship to include a broad spectrum of material cultures’3. As the beneficiary of Malam Di Jari Kita – artworks which innovatively combine a craft tradition (batik) with a contemporary artform (photography) – NUS Museum is presented the opportunity to engage Willets’ spirit of bringing into the collection ‘relatively unknown’ materials with the potential of opening up fresh discussions on art and museology.

 

Willets recognised that as a cultural material, textile has the capacity to foster awareness of the social, cultural and economic lives of societies that produce them. In 1964, he curated the exhibition Indian Textiles which included an accompanying catalogue detailing his observations of the processes by which different communities produce and pattern textiles. He also includes brief comments on the economics of India’s traditional textile industry whereby he discloses his pessimism about its viability. With the labour and time required to complete a piece of textile and the meagre returns from its sale, Willets anticipated that the industry was incapable of ‘protect[ing] itself against competition from the mills’ and ‘the prospect of total extinction’ loomed4. Another exhibition at NUS Museum in 2009 – Past-Present: Craft Communities in Contemporary India – was based on a student study trip of craft communities in present day Northern India; the catalogue essays suggest that economic conditions remain challenging in these societies5.

 

With the present exhibition, our attention shifts to a textile community closer to home. In her essay Centering the Marginal: Batik Workers in Indonesia, Amalinda Savirani gives an account of developments in the central Javanese batik industry after a catastrophic earthquake destroyed significant segments of the Yogyakarta and Central Java provinces in 2006. A healthy interest for batik textiles has developed but discourses about the industry are directed at ‘the artistic and economic dimension, neglecting the ‘people aspect’’6. Amalinda questions the future of a trade where wages are barely adequate for the worker’s daily subsistence. In this regard, she commends the initiative of Mintio and Kabul whose artworks position as its primary focus the batik makers and in so doing create ‘a space for the batik makers to appear and exist in the batik discourse’7.

Malam Di Jari Kita – The Project8

The project germinated in January 2011 during Mintio’s six-month residency at Ruang MES 56, a Yogyakarta art collaborative which encourages experimentations in photo-based artworks. The ubiquitous presence of batik textiles caught Mintio’s attention and drew her to batik workshops in the outskirts of Yogyakarta. Observing the process of producing batik tulis9, Mintio realized the intensity of labour and time involved, making the finished product unaffordable for the batik makers to keep for their own use. The exclusiveness of hand-made batiks and its immense popularity in both local and foreigner markets present a jarring contrast to the anonymity and modest social conditions of those who make the textiles; this gulf in the standing of the product vis-à-vis it makers motivated Mintio towards a project which would foreground the hands behind the graceful textile expressions. As a fine art photographer, portraiture as a way of presenting this community came to mind.

Common interests and intersections in their practice led Mintio to collaborate with Kabul during the residency; both are earnest about involving communities in their art projects and explore ways of bringing contemporary practices to groups that do not normally visit spaces where such activities are held. Moving within Yogyakarta and its outlying areas, Mintio and Kabul looked for potential project partners by calling on workshops known for their batik traditions. The village of Kebon Indah prides itself on the production of batik tulis and it was here that the artists walked into Batik Wahyu Putro, a workshop which colours fabrics using only dyes made from natural materials. For owners Ibu Suminah and her husband Pak Sukardi, experimenting with new ideas forms part and parcel of their batik enterprise and the workshop collaborates with collectors and distributors in the production of customized batik pieces. The concept of combining batik and photography piqued their curiosity and before long, they agreed to be part of the project, eventually becoming crucial members in the collaboration.

A typical batik workshop has a small team with one or more person specializing in a different stage of production. The process starts with tracing the design on cotton fabric and at Batik Wahyu Putro, this duty is assigned to a young worker Mbak Tri. Directing attention to her role, Mbak Tri’s portrait with her mother Ibu Tukirah is presented against a background bearing only traced motifs. The step after tracing involves the application of wax to cover areas on the design that are to be protected from colour when the cloth is immersed into dye. This is arguably the most time consuming part of the whole process where wax is repeatedly applied and removed, as many times as there are colours on the piece, to allow for progressive dyeing of the fabric in different colours. The task is undertaken by Ibu Suminah’s sisters, Ibu Sulami and Ibu Yatmirah, and her mother-in-law. Pak Sukardi manages the dye preparation and colouring, followed by boiling the fabric to remove the wax. He is assisted by Ibu Tukirah whom we have mentioned. Most of the batik makers from Batik Wahyu Putro participated in the project. It was also at this workshop, with Pak Sukardi and Ibu Suminah working hand in hand with Mintio and Kabul, that the experiments to create batik designs on fabrics with cyanotype prints took place.

There were other project participants from the batik making community. The waxing stage is labour intensive and most workshops engage additional hands to assist in the task. Forming the core of this additional workforce are ladies in the village who work from home to supplement their family income. Those living in close proximity to one another join a kelompok10 for mutual support. Kebon Indah has five kelompok and participants of the Malam Di Jari Kita project are from Kelompok Batik Tulis Sido Luhur11. As leader of the kelompok, Ibu Suminah made the initial introductions which paved the way for the contemporary artists to become acquainted with the other batik makers. During the project, the participants would also occasionally seek Ibu Suminah’s views whenever they wanted a second opinion on dress style, pose or the selection of motifs.

Collaborating with the batik makers had a key bearing on the medium used for the Malam Di Jari Kita suite of artworks. The artists had initially chosen silk but it is not a fabric that is regularly used in the batik process and the participants found it difficult to be creatively engaged as dealing with the technical aspect proved to be a challenge. Mintio and Kabul eventually elected to use the regular cotton cloth that the batik makers are familiar with. To print the photographic images on to cloth, the artists had considered digital printing but were unable to locate suitable facilities in Yogyakarta; the cyanotype technique came up as the only choice available to them.

As a way of introducing the project to residents of Kebon Indah, Mintio and Kabul set up a field studio and invited interested villagers to have their photos taken. A photo session in a makeshift studio was a novelty which generated much interest and received considerable response. The cyanotype process was used to print the shots from these sessions and at the conclusion of Mintio’s residency, work-in-progress samples were available. The artworks in their final form would be accomplished only after another year of experimentation.

Relationships, Experimenting, Experiencing

The project saw a significant social resonance as a result of the willingness of the contemporary artists and the batik making community to commit to a prolonged engagement with each other. For a year and a half, Mintio and Kabul made frequent trips from Yogyakarta to Kebon Indah. During each visit, Ibu Suminah, Pak Sukardi and various batik makers took the time to meet the artists, never grudging this regular intrusion into their lives. Mintio recollects these interactions:

For all the pieces, the decision on the poses and choices in the photographs were made in a rather long process. From the beginning when we first met the individual batik makers, we went through many sessions of discussions and sharing, each differing in length. The discussions were mainly on personal matters such as family life and everyday activities. We didn’t directly talk much about the work. From my point of view this is a cultural aspect of life in a Javanese village. People are regularly more open to topics on the family then to directly talk about art or work. So with that said, the decision making process was very gradual and it had a lot of influences from the kind of narratives that were shared. Most of the process was extremely organic.

Personal relationships were built between the contemporary artists and members of the batik group; the familiarity and trust that developed created an environment which was conducive for a variety of inputs, candid discussions, debates and negotiations leading to fruitful decisions. In this regard, Mintio’s account of the image shortlisting phase is informative:

After the portraits were taken, I started to make a selection. As a trained photographer, I thought that I would be in the position to pick the ones that would best represent the sitters. Pinta, who helped me with translations in the early part of the project, was sure that the selection from the batik makers would be different, and she was right! Picking the photos involved an exchange of views about why one image was preferred over another. Sometimes the batik makers and I tried to influence each other’s choices. The sessions also evoked a lot of personal memories… marriage, children, family events, etc, and decisions emerged during these chats.

Reviewing and selecting the portraits.

Allowing ample time for activities which involved interactions was important in accommodating the informal structure of engagement that prevailed for most of the project. While Mintio and Kabul had a general project plan for accomplishing their objective, the timeline and progress was not always within their control. Kabul’s description of the mode in which participants were confirmed offers an idea of how flexibility reigned over conformance to a precise plan:

A lot of people turned up for the initial photography sessions but we were not sure who would continue working with us. Eventually, we went to each lady’s home to ask if she would like to be part of the project. Some people were not sure, others were away, a few said they were interested but did not come for the follow up sessions. The process of narrowing down to the final participants was quite fluid, the criteria was mainly their interest in coming on board.

Although they initiated the project, Mintio and Kabul recognised that as much as they could give to the process, there was also a lot to be learnt from the batik makers. This unassuming manner, and the approach of encouraging each person to apply her skill directly on the artwork, inspired a sense of ownership among participants, a facet crucial to the project’s success. Almost a year on, participant Ibu Tri Sugiarti still brings out her copy of the exhibition brochure12 either when reminiscing the experience or to describe the project to her guests13. Conversations with Ibu Suminah also reveal feelings of pride and achievement:

I recently joined the internet programme in our village and did a search for Malam Di Jari Kita. It was exciting to find the video and information about the project. When I meet someone who is familiar with the internet, I would ask them to search for the phrase Malam Di Jari Kita.

When Pak Sukardi talks about the project to others, he proudly declares that these batik pieces are the only ones of their kind in the world.14

Malam Di Jari Kita was rich in offering artistic experience and experimentation to its participants. Kabul points out that being the first experiment of its kind, no one was sure how the works would turn out. Prior to the project, neither he nor Mintio had experience with the cyanotype process, and the technique was attempted relying on YouTube as the instructor! Combining the cyanotype and batik processes demanded hours of trial and error:

We used the piece of Mbak Surani and Mbak Yamtini with their children for the first test. 10

After printing the image, we applied the wax and sent it for colouring. When we boiled the artwork to remove the wax, the cyanotype image changed colour so we had to do the whole piece again. We eventually fine tuned the steps such that we traced the silhouette on the fabric and completed the batik background before doing the cyanotype printing.

Placing the film negative on the artwork after a coat of light-sensitive solution is applied on the area where a print of the image is to be made.

The assembly of cloth and negative is sandwiched between two glass plates and exposed to light. The solution on the cloth changes colour leaving a positive of the image.

Washing off the remnant solution on the cloth.

Schooled in visual arts, Mintio achieves the desired outcomes in her works through meticulous control of the artistic process. For her, opening up to the artistic sensibilities of other cultures, adapting and innovating as the artworks are being developed formed a key aspect of her experience:

On one occasion after a batik maker had chosen the design for her piece, I attempted to trace the motifs, positioning them according to a design idea I had in mind. The result did not seem to have an overall coherence as a batik pattern and in the end I left it to the batik makers.

I wanted certain parts of the design to be in specific colours but this did not always happen as planned. For economies of scale, the colouring process is done in batches so when the workshop prepares dye of a particular colour, we had to take advantage of it or wait for the next colouring cycle. This eventually determined the colours of the artworks.

I learnt to become more comfortable with the idea of loosening the control. Expecting that things might change halfway, allowing this to take its course, and appreciating that change can result in something beautiful and meaningful. I guess we cannot over-engineer a community to make art, the process has to embrace its rhythms and traditions.

For participants from the batik community, the project was an interesting encounter with self representation. Ibu Tukinem who posed with her daughter Mbak Ambar recalls some shots where she had donned a shorter pair of trousers. As she reviewed the photos, she decided that something longer would be more suited for her age group. The project forms a part of the memories she shares with her daughter; during a recent visit to Yogyakarta, the pair passed the Indonesia Contemporary Art Network and reminded each other of the exhibition15. Ibu Tri Sugiarti enjoyed the photo sessions, the experience of seeing them being gradually transformed, and eventually exhibited. Not at all sure what to expect at the beginning, the artworks have turned out to be much more than what she had imagined.16 Mbak Surani whose portrait includes her sister and their children found it amusing that shots were being repeatedly taken with minute adjustments in posture and pose.17

In the case of Pak Sukardi and Ibu Suminah, the experimentation included the creation of a few new motifs. Designed by Pak Sukardi, the flourishing plants in the triptych of Ibu Suminah and her sisters is an expression of the sitter’s admiration for the botanical environment and her ideal of a meaningful life being one where people coexist harmoniously with nature.18

The visual conceptualization of the artworks arrests our attention, particularly with reference to Mintio and Kabul’s intention that the series would serve to acknowledge the batik workers’ role as cultural-makers in Indonesian society. In Chinese and Western portrait painting traditions, the inclusion of objects alongside the sitter offers clues about his/her profession, status, achievements, wealth and interests. This visual strategy is adapted in Malam Di Jari Kita. Portraits of the batik makers are set against a backdrop of motifs designed and executed by participants from the kelompok. The combination of portraiture and batik patterns creates an immediate association between the sitter and her occupation, at the same time bringing attention to her skill and acknowledging the crucial role she plays in the industry.

Ongoing Conversations

Mintio’s curiosity about the circumstances surrounding batik makers led her to initiate the project. She provided the artistic concept and defined a general plan leading towards the objectives, but refrained from adopting a position of the ‘artist as a director’ who controls every aspect of the script. Her mode of operation was to facilitate, adapt and innovate as the project progressed, allowing for the exchange of ideas with the batik makers and the incorporation of their perspectives. Through democratic dialogue, fresh possibilities in aesthetics were realized, encompassing the traditional and the contemporary. The batik makers’ agency in the creative process was recognized, and the space given for them to become co-producers of artworks that are consensual representations of themselves and their community.

No measurable social impact or transformation may be immediately evident but the collective building of social knowledge through the interactions cannot be disregarded. As Steven Bridges notes, in encounters of this nature, inputs from different participants are ‘[metabolized] to create new forms of knowledge that, in turn, become subject positions to be exposed and further metabolized through the course of other activities’19. Through this continual process of ‘metabolizing information’, our collective social consciousness and the pool of experience and ideas from which we can draw are consistently refined and expanded.

Mintio represents the ‘original and distinctive’ voice which triggered the project into existence and in Claire Bishop’s writings on collaborative art practices, she argues for the acknowledgement of such singular authorial capacity which has been sidelined on percepts of democratic and ethical consciousness20. There are, however, other voices making a case for collective authorship – according of equal authorial credits to all participants within a collaborative project. These debates are pertinent in the context of Malam Di Jari Kita where a visually compelling set of artworks have emerged. As the series is introduced to a wider audience, it accrues artistic capital which advances the position and interests of those credited for its authorship. The project saw a number of parties contributing in various capacities. Besides the inputs of the contemporary artists, Pak Sukardi was the hand behind the motifs which he designed with knowledge of the community’s batik traditions; Ibu Suminah was an active participant as well as the person to whom the other batik makers approached for opinions relating to aesthetical choices for their portraits. Each of the other batik makers can claim a distinct role in the process for it is her image and her selection of accompanying motifs that gives the portrait its visual form.

Collective authorship proposes equal attribution of credit with the idea of relatively equitable contribution by each individual. By what criteria do we measure the varied forms and quantum of each participant’s input to a collaborative art project? In the absence of a framework for quantifying individual effort, should an egalitarian system be adopted and what are the issues that would arise with this approach? Mintio and Kabul envision Malam Di Jari Kita to be artworks that would generate sustainable conversations as they are viewed by a range of audiences. In bringing up the complex nature of attributing authorship, I have sought to use their project to inspire such a conversation; one which would become increasingly crucial with the rising trend of artist–community collaborations.

Foo Su Ling is a curator at NUS Museum.

Bibliography

Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Brooklyn, NY : Verso Books, 2012.

Bishop, Claire, ‘Claire Bishop Responds’ in Artforum 44, No. 9, February 2006, 24.

Bridges, Steven L., ‘Making the Invisible Visible: Socially Engaged, Collaborative Public Art in the City’, Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Arts Administration & Policy, Department of Art History, Theory & Criticism, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2009.

Kester, Grant H., Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Kester, Grant H., ‘Another Turn’ in Artforum 44, No. 9, February 2006, 22. Lind, Maria, ‘Actualisation of Space: The Case of Oda Projesi’,

http://eipcp.net/transversal/1204/lind/en (accessed on 2 June 2013).

Papastergiadis, Nikos, ‘The Global Need for Collaboration’, http://collabarts.org/?p=201 (accessed on 9 September 2013).

Past-Present: Craft Communities in Contemporary India, A publication accompanying exhibition of the same title, Singapore: NUS Museum, 2009.

Roche, Jennifer, ‘Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with
Claire Bishop’, doublesession.net/indexhibitv070e/files/bishopinterview.doc (accessed on 26 May 2013).

Sabapathy, T.K., ‘Past-Present: A History of the University Art Museum’ in T.K. Sabapathy (ed), Past, Present and Beyond: Re-nascence of an Art Collection, Singapore: NUS Museums, 2002.

Savirani, Amalinda, ‘Centering the Marginal: Batik Workers in Indonesia’ in this volume.

Willets, William, Indian Textiles: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Indian Traditional Village Textiles in the University of Singapore Art Museum, Singapore: University of Singapore Art Museum, 1964.

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Endnotes:

1 In discussing the social and artistic outcomes of Malam Di Jari Kita, I have referenced the framework of analyzing participatory art projects in the writings of Claire Bishop and Grant H. Kester.

2 William Willets was curator and director of NUS Museum’s predecessor institution, the University of Singapore Art Museum, from 1963 to 1973. During his tenure, he added to the collection two categories of objects generally labeled as craft traditions – textiles of Indian and Southeast Asian origins, and Southeast Asian ceramics.

3

4

Sabapathy, ‘Past-Present’, 16.
Willets, ‘Indian Textiles’, 8, 12 and 14.

5 exhibition.

NUS Museum and NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) co-organized this

  1. 6  Savirani, ‘Centering the Marginal’.
  2. 7  Ibid
  3. 8  Details of the project were gathered in 2013 during a number of conversations and email

correspondence between this author and Mintio and Kabul.

9 In batik tulis, the designs are hand drawn on to the fabric and the application of wax is carried out with a canting, a hand-held device with a wooden handle and a metal reservoir at the end for dispensing melted wax. Batik tulis differs from batik cap which is also hand-made but uses a patterned stamp for wax application.

  1. 10  A work group or collective.
  2. 11  Sido Luhur is a batik motif believed to have been created during the Mataram period.

(http://fitinline.com/article/read/keunikan-makna-filosofi-batik-klasik-motif-sido-luhur)

12 At the conclusion of the project in 2012, an exhibition was held at the Indonesia Contemporary Art Network in Yogyakarta. A brochure in Bahasa Indonesia was published for the occasion.

  1. 13  Ibu Tri Sugiarti, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.
  2. 14  Ibu Suminah, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.
  3. 15  Ibu Tukinem, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.

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  1. 16  Ibu Tri Sugiarti, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.
  2. 17  Mbak Surani, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.
  3. 18  Ibu Suminah, Conversation with author on 17 July 2013 with Kabul interpreting.
  4. 19  Bridges, ‘Making the Invisible Visible’, 85.
  5. 20  Bishop, ‘Artificial Hells’, 18-26.