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A Tale in Batik

Together with his own work, Matti Braun shows in his exhibition “Gost Log” at Arnolfini (until 6 Jan 2013), two outstanding historical textiles. One of them is a Javanese altar cloth from the late 19th century with surprising motifs, such as a Little Red Riding Hood and bicycles. Textile expert Rudolf Smend wrote a text which describes his investigation about the cloth…

Semar, Sinta, Petruk, Karna & Little Red Riding Hood. A Tale in Batik.

Tok wi is an altar cloth for a Chinese family altar. It is about one meter square and was probably produced in the late 19th Century on the northern coast of Indonesia’s main island of Java. The two side straps, which are attached to the top corners, would have been used to attach the cloth to the altar, and – as you can see by the signs of use – it must have been used often.

The textile is a tightly woven natural colored cotton fabric, on which the rich earthy red batik depicts a floral border – reminiscent of European jewelry scarves- surrounding different figures and creatures: typical Javanese shadow puppets, chattering Europeans with umbrellas and Chinese figures on bikes. Those familiar with Indonesian shadow puppets will notice in the upper right and left of the frieze the figure of Semar, the father of comedians. In the middle, mirrored left and right, you can see Sinta with her long hair. Next to each comedian is Petruk, and then the Viceroy Karna. The figures look to the centre where, much larger than the others, is a girl with European-style facial features. The patterned dress with a plunging neckline and attached collar are similar in design to traditional Dutch dress, and on her hip, in almost menacing contrast, is a lion head with a large open mouth, tongue hanging out and sharp teeth.

When I exhibited this fabric several years ago in the exhibition “Batiks of Royal Courts and Sultan Palaces of Java and Sumatra” in Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, I asked Dr Harmen C. Veldhuisen from The Hague, a specialist in batiks from the time of the turn of the century, for an interpretation. He too felt the fabric was mysterious, but confirmed my guess at interpretation: could it be perhaps a depiction if Little Red Riding Hood with the local Indonesian wildlife modification of a lion head in place of the wolf; the scene, triumphant for the girl, that ends the German fairy tale, enriched with scenes of everyday life at that time in Indonesia and images of different local tales? What does that say about the owner? A mixed cultural background?

In illustrations in batik literature, the Little Red Riding Hood motif is frequently encountered. From 1920 batiks were a popular gift to young girls and were even prepared using copper temples as a batik cap. Certainly in Indonesia the Dutch colonial masters were well known and batik motifs were popular in colonial high society in Jakarta. You can find the story of the mermaid, which has its counterpart in the Javanese Parangtritis, the revered queen of the South Seas; and batiks that depict Cinderella or Snow White and the Six Dwarfs (seven in Java is obviously not a “good” number). The templates of popular motifs, called Pola, were often copied from dealers and then offered to other batik factories to purchase.

With the various figures and their heterogeneous cultural background and collage-like, stylistically different presentation, this batik is certainly a very unique item in contemporary history. It probably shows the desire of the Chinese client and owner to assimilate as quickly as possible in Java. As a wealthy minority which was met with reservations, the Chinese were keen to, on the one hand, integrate, and on the other, maintain the traditional customs of China.

Another expert and friend from Berlin Horst Christian Ehrich – an engineer whose wife had long worked as a development expert in Sumatra and loved batiks – proposed however a different interpretation of the central figure: “I already addressed the textile years ago, so much so that I’ve even painted it. My impression is that the child is a boy who may have been a Chinese prince, and the dog pictured, by type and size, can only really be the Tibetan Mastiff. Chinese dogs are characterized by small size, fitness for feeding on (Chow-type) or compressed muzzle (Pekinese etc).

The pictured dog corresponds so exactly to this breed of dog (the pictured profile of the head could serve as a model for breeders), that one could draw from this the fact that this Tibetan dog was kept in a large home in China. More interesting, with the subject of the Chinese-Tibetan border zone, is who the boy. (…)”

The art historian Kees de Ruiter from Nieuwegein near Utrecht replied:

“Most Europeans (including Indo-Europeans) and many other Eurasian children went to Dutch schools, read Dutch books and knew all the classic fairy tales from childhood. Of note is that many pupils from the upper class of the colonial society were of Chinese (Peranakan) or Indo-Chinese descent. These so called ‘Gelijkgestelden’ were legally equal to European citizens after payment of a large amount of money to the Dutch government. So Little Red Riding Hood, or Little Red Cap, was well known in colonial Chinese culture, sometimes East and West did meet …

Furthermore the child depicted is clearly a girl and not a boy, and though the wolf looks like a dog it is certainly a wolf. To give another example: on 18th century Chinese ‘Chine de Commande’ porcelain, the lions on either side of the United States coat of arms very strongly resemble Chinese dragons, but this is just the (Asian) interpretation of the artist.”

Another authority on Batik is the American Donald J. Harper, who has lived for more than 30 years in Yogyakarta and from whom I bought this fabric – but only on the condition that I never would pass the fabric on someone other than him.

After I sent him the interpretation of Horst Ehrich, this was his opinion:

“Regarding the Tok wi: the theory about the figure being a Chinese prince does not make sense because as far as I know, Chinese men did not wear batik sarongs and if it is indeed a prince, he would certainly not be wearing batik. Rather, I think it is a European girl fondly holding her dog. Normally we would think of her as being Red Riding Hood since there are so many batiks with that theme, but if that is the case, why would she be holding the wolf in her arms? In any event, this is one of those great pieces featuring ladies dressed up in 1890s fashion. I especially like the European lady in the top panel standing amongst the wayang puppets, on one hand looking ‘foreign’ but at the same time somehow a part of the scene. At first I thought the piece was made by the Chinese but now I think it may have been made by someone Dutch. The figures look like a European version of the Garuda bird and not like those we see on other traditional batiks. Hey, but who knows? It’s just one of the greatest batiks ever. “

If you look from the main character to the right and bottom left, you will see that there are two birds with outstretched wings which surely represent the Garuda. The Garuda is the bird on the national coat of arms of the new Indonesia, and also the international airline of the country has that name. This image suggests an idea of what the national symbol may mean today, and what may have also been the subject of the batik: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “unity in diversity”.

Rudolf G. Smend

This text was originally published in German in “Matti Braun. Salo”, exhibition catalogue Kunstverein Braunschweig and La Galerie, Noisy-le-Sec, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne 2010.

See more from Matti Braun from the archive.

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