November 6, 2019

More Books then Batiks

Catalog 'A Royal Treasure, the Javanese Batik collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam' (2019) 
by Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok, 
surrounded by flyers and souvenirs from their giftshop

This last journey to Batik I manage to collect more books then Batiks. I also got many books as gift so could bring less Batiks, but since I love books, I am very happy with these (for me) new interesting sources of information.  I thought a kind of review-sharing-book-post would be good, so here we go.

First the long anticipated catalog of the exhibition A Royal Treasure, the Javanese Batik collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam. I was already lucky that I could plan my journey in a way that I could include a visit to this exhibition, I was later even more lucky my illness didn't prevent me from seeing it. So the first thing me and John Ang did was going here. John already went before, twice I believe, for me I only heard the stories. Since making photos is strictly prohibited seeing the exhibition felt like a real must and getting a copy of the fresh from the press catalog a dream come true. The exhibition will change two more times and surely it will two times more be filled with exquisite beauties. Every piece is of the finest quality, displayed nicely, yet something is missing. The story of the King collecting these pieces himself in three visits is inspiring and trilling, yet this story is somehow not really shared in much detail. The pieces are of the highest quality and therefor were very expensive, but no real personal taste is being revealed of the King. 
Next to that, it is unclear what information is from notes, either kept with the Batiks or from the letters (and diary?) of the King, and what is added by the curator and others. This is a pity because now it is difficult to determine what pieces might reveal something new. And something new they can definitely reveal. 
The Batiks where collected between 1871 and 1901. For certain all pieces are from before 1901 and some are dated even better, because they were archived with notes which mentioned when and where they were bought. An unique time-capsule which could make it possible to date or attribute Batiks in other collections more clearly, but it was done the other way around....
The notes are not all published in the catalog, but at least the footnotes makes it a little more clear which information comes from where. In the exhibition this is not the case and it makes you wonder how this information is being received. If I read signs in museums, I assume that what is stated is a fact, or if it is “we think” that it is mentioned as ‘attributed to or possible from’. If you mention a place the Batik is made, but this is not known for sure, I think it would be good to add this in the information. 
Why, you might wonder. 
Well, still of many older Batiks in collections we are not sure where they are actually made. This is especially the case with Batiks from the North-coast of Java. In theory their style, motifs and colours are very different, but in reality provenance, the place of origin or earliest known history, can be quite hard to determine. Some pieces in collections get attributed to different places, and people, over time. Some pieces lose their original tags or get new ones. In every book Batiks will get used to declare a new theory or are used to give other Batiks an origin. 
Of course you might think, why does this is used merely as a ‘game of cloths’ between researchers. Yes, it was for the longest time just that, but this is no longer a collection problem, but a creation problem. Batikmakers and entrepreneurs are facing problems with their own Batik history. Batikworkshops had their history in cloths, keeping old Batiks to revisit motifs or having them traced on paper. With the war on Java much of this history got lost and for many the history of their batik legacy was stopped or paused. If there were Batiks kept, they were often sold in the years following. Batik was not on high demand and backpacking adventurers wanted to pay good money for your old laundry. So these golden times for collectors are now showing their effect on Batikmakers. Now restarting Batikworkshops facing the problem of not having anything to fall back to. If lucky they have a few pieces from their family that they can combine with the knowledge stored in the mind and hand of the makers. With this need for knowledge of this history they turn to books & search online. Over the years I saw more and more motifs appear on Batiks I know from famous Batikbooks then ever before. A real realisation of how problematic this might be came to me, when a Batik entrepreneur showed me her new classic motif and moments later the book she copied if from. She pointed at the description; “This was made here!”
Yes, inspiration can be taking from anywhere and they are free to take it from books. But they use it because it is one of the few ways they get access to their own Batikhistory. They want to tell their story, continue their story. So we have to make sure that that story is as complete and correct as possible, but how do we do this?
One wish mentioned by many, Batikmakers and researchers, is the need for a kind of catalog/database that will make this North-coast Batikhistory more clear. Especially the development of Batik in Pekalongan, Batang, Semarang, Lasem and the connecting regions. There is so much debate going on about this; how to deal with this history, how makers should or should not use it, how we can use what is made today to examine what was made before or if old patterns should be re-introduced. 
What would help in this, in examining this history and using this history as current inspiration, is if we knew better what came from where and when. 
So that why the collection King Rama V made is so important and it is a great start, the exhibition and the catalog, but I am sure much more can be discovered!

One of the many full page printed fold outs of the catalog 'A Royal Treasure, the Javanese Batik collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam' (2019) 

Page from the catalog 'A Royal Treasure, the Javanese Batik collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam' (2019) with PR-fan and a bag label especially made for the giftshop based on a Batik motif from the collection

In September two ladies of National Palace Museum of Taiwan visited the Volkendkunde Museum and I was asked to show them our digitale Batik collection - This book arrived by post while I was on Java, a beauty with an overview of their textile collection including Batik - 'Boldness of Forms and Colors, Asian Textiles in the National Palace Museum Collection' (2015) photographed together with folders and gifts from the museum - Much appreciated!

'Industri Batik Pekalongan, Pergulatan Tanpa Akhir' by Achmad Ilyas (2018)  and 'Ensiklopedia The Heritage of Batik, Identitas Pemersatu Kebanggaan Bangsa' (2016) on a Tobal Batik sarong

A few days after my talk at Museum Batik in Pekalongan historian and auteur Achmad Ilyas gifted me his book Industri Batik Pekalongan, Pergulatan Tanpa Akhir. The book published in 2018 was only made for local use and therefor in Bahasa Indonesia and not for sale. I was really happy with this gift, because it gives me a great insight on what is known and where the information comes from. Talking with Pak Achamd it already became clear that his sources where from the Netherlands or locally from oral history. He mentioned that in Pekalongan specifically little could still be found and that maybe in Jakarta more was stored. In his book it is interesting to see photos from the Tropenmuseum, next to an Batik collection from a collector from Pekalongan. 
When I started my project, I had the question if their was a lack of information on Java to proper research their own Batik history. I noticed that many sources are here and they are not always easily accessible because they are often handwritten in Dutch and not digital yet. This auteur and book, and many others spoke to confirmed this and confirmed the need to improve this.
I photographed the book next to Ensiklopedia The Heritage of Batik, Identitas Pemersatu Kebanggaan Bangsa, because this book is made with very different sources. Namely links to blogpost and online articles. I never saw a book like this before and on one hand I salute it being a blogger and all that, on the other hand, I know how many mistakes float online, also on my own blog hehe, so how trust worthy is this Encyclopaedia? Still an interesting book and very happy Jennifer found me a copy, many thanks! 

While the book 'Industri Batik Pekalongan' mostly rely on Dutch sources, 
the Ensiklopedia is full of url's

Book '50 years Danar Hadi' open on the page where they produce silkscreen printed textiles 
- it breaks my heart that an institute like Danar Hadi sells printed textiles next to Batik Tulis and Cap, yet I appreciate they are very open about it - the book is shown on a Batik Cap blouse 
and next to a Batik Cap handbag

Book 'Batik 3 Negeri Solo, Sebuah Lengenda' by Benny Gratha (2018) 
and flyer of the Roemah Batik Lasem where they soon open a 'Tiga Negeri Museum' 
on top of the Java print classic 'Good Living'

Tiga Negeri was by far the hottest thing on Java. Either I didn't notice before, or it was always like that, or  it is because I am making my own 'Tiga Negeri'? It was as if all makers had now a version of it and it was everywhere a hot topic. 
The textile conservator Benny Gratha made quite the impact with his book Batik 3 Negeri Solo, Sebuah Lengenda published in 2018. The story that Tiga Negeri was Batik being made in three places, was debunked by him. The Tjoa Batik Family told their story to Pak Benny claiming they invented the name Tiga Negeri after the Chinese story 'The Legend of the Three Kingdom' and have been making it since 1910.
I talked with him myself about and shared the contradicting findings I made. He just had the very Javanese answer to it; their truth is just one of the truths about Tiga Negeri.
In Lasem I was surprised to be shown around the, what is going to be the first and only, Museum of Tiga Negeri. Proudly I was showed the already finished information signs. I joked that they might need to re-write this when my research project is done. But in fact it is not a joke at all.
I come across documents, fabrics and photos in archives I never saw mentioned or used before. Some will definitely shine light on stories being told & histories written, some will help proving stories are wrong, right or incomplete. Some stories will be right, but with the wrong conclusions.
We have this need of sharing big stories, while most histories are build up out of many individual tales. Just like Pak Benny said, not one truth but many. Of course we can't share everyone's stories, Social Media disagrees with me on this one, but we must make sure that the stories that are being told are the right ones; the ones that inspire, empower, make our horizons wider and our future better. By excluding stories or telling them from one point of view, will not benefit us. Hopefully it will inspire people to share their story. So thanks for sharing these stories and I am looking forward to visit the Tiga Negeri Museum!

Book 'Power Dressing, Lanna Shan Siam 19th Century Court Dress' 
by the James H.W. Thompson Foundation (2003), 
my first book on Thai traditional wear and it is with stunning photos of the clothing, 
photographed with the pineapple bag I bought in Bangkok 
on top of a map and Jim Thompson giftbag

Catalog '10th year challenges: Indonesian Batik as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' 
by Museum Tekstil in Jakarta, (2019), 
book 'Java.Bali.Sumatra, photographies de 1860 a 1920' by Les Éditions du Pacifique (2000) 
and catalog 'The Jakarta Textile Museum' (1998) 
on top of two linnen bags

For more information on the books, content or where to get, please feel free to contact me (email or comment below) 

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