Unity in diversity: Indonesian batik art

By Lizzie Follows

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Indigo Deputy Editor, Ayasha, about the traditional Indonesian practice of batik. This conversation sparked a contemplation about how both the process and product of art can foster a sense of unity across a dispersed population and ignite an intersection between local and national pride.

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state, comprising 38 provinces spread across over 17,000 islands. As well as its physical size, it hosts significant cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. It could be easy to imagine that such a diverse state would champion few common cultural threads, and that national pride may be subverted from the regional level. However, this is a nation which takes diversity in its stride. So much so, that its national motto is ‘’Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’’ (‘’unity in diversity’’). This motto is neatly reflected in the national art medium of choice – batik – which manages to celebrate unique local cultures whilst contributing to the larger tapestry of Indonesia’s national identity.

Here, I will explore the concept of unity in diversity through a visual arts lens, beginning in Indonesia, and then thinking about the role of art in fostering unity in a contemporary world increasingly characterised by wall-building and exclusions.

The term batik, which is both a verb and a noun, is thought to have evolved from the Javanese ‘’amba’’ (to write) and ‘’titik’’ (to make a dot). It also exists in the Javanese phrase ‘’Mbatik Manah’’, which translates to ‘’to paint with the whole heart’’. This shows how the physical act of creating (the verb component) is given equal importance as the tangible end art product.

A nation which takes diversity in its stride

Batik as an art form involves decorating a surface (usually fabric, though also applicable to other media such a word or ceramics) using wax and dye. The process involves blocking out a design with hot wax, which resists the dye and remains the original colour. The fabric produced is used in means from everyday garments to ritualistic practices. Though at its foundation seemingly simple, multiple wax layers and intricate blocking designs lend themselves to expressive and subtle results. Such value is perceived in these processes, that in 2009 UNESCO inscribed Indonesian batik on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Through time, these processes have evolved to maintain cultural relevance and contemporality. For example, Ayasha spoke about how the modern casualisation of batik garments, through use of printing onto less-stiff, more comfortable fabrics, is likely a key cause of its persisting popularity.

Though each piece is distinctly batik, each one manifests itself very differently through symbology, colours, and patterns, which may be characteristic of a particular region, society, or family. As such the ‘language’ of batik is accessible and appealing to the different ‘regional dialects’ of expression, much like the many languages accommodated by the linguistic ‘Indonesian’ umbrella term. For example, Ayasha explained how the yellow fish pictured is called Bandeng and is representative of the region of Lamongan in East Java. At an even more local scale, batik patterns may incorporate community or institutional logos, which are then formed into uniforms. For example, the distinctive school uniform of SMPI Al Azhar. As such, local and national pride converge in the everyday.

Batik shows the power of art and shared heritage to promote national pride in an inclusive way which incorporates, and even encourages expression of, diversity and regional differences, fostering unity in diversity. Both the act of creating art and the product produced is highly meaningful. Though this can be strongly politically charged, I also wonder if it can play a role in finding common ground and unifying people in an increasingly divided world and celebrating diversity.

Through spreading stories, art introduces people to new perspectives, encouraging empathy and reflection. This is increasingly important in a contemporary world where media and post-truth narratives often stir mistrust of the other, and can incite spread of hatred, especially online. Conversations and public knowledge being taken up by something beautiful, or a celebration of difference, makes a welcome contrast.

Moreover it is a universal human experience to have a reaction to a piece of art. This draws anyone who wishes to contemplate it together into dialogue, connecting them emotionally and intellectually, even if their opinions disagree, conversation builds connections, and increase tolerance.

The art of creating is as important as the tangible end product

Or perhaps the power lies in the process of art. Even if the symbology and narrative is disputed, humans are connected, both across space and time, through a shared interest in expressing themselves and their ideas through creative media. Batik has demonstrated that unity needs to welcome and facilitate diversity in opinion and expression, so perhaps art’s role in unifying a divided world, is simply that it seems to be, and has been since cavemen first made marks with rocks, a natural human response to world around us (and inside our heads). 

Art is a shared heritage that everyone can find a way to relate to and everyone can take pride in, and batik has shown that pride can coexist at a range of scales.

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