Batik is such a magical textile. It’s a special way of dyeing cloth. Wax is applied to the surface of a cloth to protect certain areas from the dye bath. The cloth is dyed several times to achieve a rich, artistic surface. It is traditionally done by hand, and takes a very long time. Resistance and Splendor in Javanese Textiles is a small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that explores this wax resist dyeing technique.
So, for instance, let’s talk about the sarung above. There are about 4 different dye colors. Before the sarung was dipped in a red dye bath, all of the areas that were going to be a different color had to be covered in wax. The wax prevents the dye from being absorbed in the fabric. The cloth was dried, the wax removed, and the the process was repeated for the other colored dye baths.
Batik is a traditional cloth from Indonesia. There are many studios in Java that have historically produced batik cloth. I wrote a lot about this in graduate school, and always admired how skillfully and artistically the cloth was decorated. Some of my research is actually published in book Encyclopedia of National Dress! The book is available for pre-order on Amazon. My mom (above) attended the show with me. She knows how crazy I am about batik, but she had never seen any in person.
She was mesmerized by the level of detail in the cloth.
One of the other aspects I love about Javanese textiles is that they are spiritual objects. Indonesia has a really rich and diverse religious community, but a large percentage is Hindu and Buddhist. The cloth and how it is made is a representation of the universe (sort of like Tibetan sand mandalas).
The act of making these complex patterns is a sort of meditation. Extreme care and mindfulness are needed, or else the design will not be executed properly. The artists that make these clothes must be fully present in the moment of creating the cloth.
Also, the colors of the dyes are a spiritual reference. The traditional natural dyes indigo, brown, and white represent the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These three gods are a sacred trinity in Hinduism. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. You can start to see how traditional batik represents the larger idea of the universe, life, and death.
Most of the designs and motifs in batik show scenes from nature. I think this really reinforces the spiritual element of the cloth. It represents the impermanence of life. Life changes. It never stays the same. Everything grows, changes forms, and eventually leaves the earth.
Most Hindu and Buddhist art address these ideas. Art from these spiritual traditions act as meditation tools. They give viewers ways to understand and accept the greater truths and experience of life. But most Buddhist and Hindu art is stationary and stays in one place. Batik can be worn, and serve as a daily reminder of spirituality.
All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you liked these images, I’ll be posting more to my Facebook page. Please check it out!