Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Who is Ibu Stephanie?

Stephanie Belfrage, the Australian woman who gave her beautiful batik textiles back to Indonesia, is "one of the warmest and most generous spirits you could wish to meet" according to a friend of hers. This warmth has shone through all of the correspondence that I have had with her.
Stephanie Belfrage with her husband and one of her hand-made quilts.

In addition to this, I know her through a short blurb that she wrote  for the big repatriation event in Pekalongan. Here it is:

In 1971, I left Australia, newly married, for Paris.  Seven years later, we packed up our young family and set out for Jakarta.  There was a marked contrast in lifestyle but the whole family fell in love with the people, the landscape and the vibrant Indonesian culture, and embraced it all with open arms. 
We wasted no time in learning Bahasa Indonesia, and quickly made friends among both Indonesian colleagues and fellow expats.  I became involved in a number of projects, all related in some way to textiles.  I joined a quilting group and through it learned about the different batik textiles.  I was on a committee that set up a shop, ‘The Red Feather’, to provide skills and income for the paraplegic residents of the Wisma Cheshire Home in Cilandak, Jakarta.  We taught the residents basic English and Accounting.  The girls learned to cut and sew patchwork items.  The boys made superb dolls’ houses.  The shop was very successful and enabled the residents to achieve a degree of independence, which would not otherwise have been possible for them.  (I am not sure whether or not the shop is still functioning). 
Batak textiles from North Sumatra were first introduced to me through the  Ganesha Society (now called the Heritage Society??) where I also met Batak people living in Jakarta.  I then began to collect their textiles,  learning about the significance of  ulos within Batak culture.  This study became part of a lecture programme of  the Ganesha Society
Double ikat weaving, unique to the village of Tenganan, was introduced to me in regular sojourns at Ibu Oka’s Ashram in Candi Dasa, East Bali. A visit to the Batak homeland of Samosir in North Sumatra expanded my knowledge of their textiles (ulos). Attendance at a traditional funeral ceremony in Sulawesi resulted in the acquisition of one of the most valued textiles in my collection, which has recently been most welcomed by the Jakarta Textile Museum and is now, as I understand it,  part of the current exhibition of Torajan textiles.  Travel to Cirebon and Linggar Jati in 1985 to visit the home of the beautiful Pekalongan batiks and to watch them being created in the traditional workshops, led to my exposure to yet another variety of Indonesian textile.
Everywhere we went, we collected textiles.  The everyday ones, were cut and used in patchwork quilts as shown in the photo attached.  When we left Indonesia in 1986, the textiles and patchwork quilts came with us.  They have been much admired and much loved since then.
However, life goes on.  This year we have moved to a smaller space and foremost on my mind was what to do with the textiles.  Of the options available, returning them to their original home seemed by far the most satisfying.  Indonesia had been so welcoming to us, introducing us to wider cultural  perspectives, which in turn invited us to reflect on our own. Thanks to modern technology, I ‘met’ Dr. Sandra Niessin, who told me about her Pulang Kampung project, which I immediately identified with.  With Sandra’s guidance and the help of Mrs. Mara Soekarno, Dr. Anne Conduit, Mr. Greg Roberts and Mr. Ian Reed, all the textiles are now returning home.

Stephanie's photograph was projected on the wall behind us  as I 
spoke about the spirit of repatriation in Pekalongan's 
Batik Museum

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pulang Kampung in Pekalongan

In a blog last February, I revealed that a woman in Australia had asked for my help to return her beloved traditional textiles to Indonesia. She had collected them in Indonesia in the 1980s and was now moving house and downsizing. She wanted to give them back to Indonesia precisely because they were so important to her. I agreed to do what I could.

When I wrote that blog I was loath to disclose details about my ruminations because they had not yet become solid plans. Now, some 9 months later, I am thrilled to share the story of how Stephanie Belfrage’s textiles have found a new home in their country of origin. (There are more textiles in the collection about which I am still ruminating and composing plans.) The story of the repatriation of Stephanie Belfrage’s batiks became front page news in Indonesia. The textiles were received more enthusiastically than I could ever have dreamed would be the case.

Article in Metro Pekalongan on 24 September
announcing the plans to return Stephanie Belfrage's textiles.

Article in Kompas Newspaper 2 October

Stephanie had five North Coast batiks in her collection. When she wrote to me, I had just returned from a visit to Pekalongan to explore the haunts of the famous batik maker, Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen. I had met dedicated members of the Pekalongan Heritage Community and had been given an impressive tour of Pekalongan’s beautiful Batik Museum. I was inspired to dream up a strategy in which the return of Stephanie’s batiks would also promote the goals of my new friends.

Mas Arif beside a batik made by Eliza van Zuylen
Arif Dirhamzah was a key player in the strategy and the reason for its success. A leading member of the Pekalongan Heritage Community and reporter and adviser for the Pekalongan radio station, his network was extensive. His dedication, however, was the most important factor. He had been my host in Pekalongan and now he was my contact. I said that I wanted to give the textiles to the Pekalongan Heritage Community. I trusted this Community to  find an appropriate final destination for the textiles. Mas Arif went to work immediately exploring the option of the Pekalongan Batik Museum. The Heritage Community is a young and informal group and I hoped that by way of this transfer they would gain profile and stature in the community and also the Museum. Moreover, I wanted there to be a public record of the transfer.

The Mayor's representative spoke about the importance of
heritage and the successes of the museum.
Mas Arif obtained the green light from the city's Mayor and subsequently from the museum. When I finally arrived in the City of Batik, as Pekalongan dubs itself, at the end of September, everything was set. On October 1 a ceremony was held in the museum auditorium with many reporters in attendance as well as important leaders in the batik community. The Mayor was not able to make it personally, but he sent an official to represent him. The Museum director, Ibu Tanti, was our host as well as Pak Dojo, the municipal officer who held the museum portfolio. We took our place behind the table at the front of the room. 

I showed the audience the poster of the Pulang Kampung
project that was designed by MJA Nashir for our exhibition
in Erasmus Huis, Jakarta (2011)
I delivered a short speech about my Pulang Kampung project, the importance of preserving and sharing heritage, and about Stephanie Belfrage (the little that I knew). I then handed the textiles over to mas Arif. In turn, he passed them on to the man representing the Mayor. They were then transferred to the museum.

I passed the textiles to the Pekalongan
Heritage Community
Mas Arif then passed them on to the city
in the person of the Mayor's representative
The enthusiastic audience begged us to open the boxes and show them the textiles.
Museum director, Ibu Tanti, was pleased with the quality of the textiles
and the reaction that they received from the audience

The Mayor found time to visit the museum shortly afterwards and requested that Stephanie Belfrage's textiles be placed on display immediately

As pure luck would have it, the following day was National Batik Day marking the anniversary of UNESCO’s official recognition of batik as important intangible cultural heritage. 

The day was being celebrated in grand style in Pekalongan with an enormous batik market kicked off by national political leaders. Mr. Hatta Rajasa, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs, would be visiting the museum and the Mayor would show off the gift. The Mayor, therefore, was  able to make some political hay from Stephanie Belfrage’s gift.

The museum director issued an official receipt for Stephanie’s batiks.

In all, the transfer was satisfying because Stephanie’s gift gave so many times and so well! 

An additional delight was the involvement of Greg Roberts, the courier of Stephanie’s textiles from Australia. A passionate aficionado of North Coast batiks, he had supplemented Stephanie's package with a copy of the exhibition catalogue of his own collection: one for the museum, one for the Pekalongan Heritage Community, and, I am very happy to say, one for me. It is a beautiful book!
I told my audience about Greg Roberts' batik catalogue.
Batik of Java: poetics and politics, 2010
Calounda Regional Gallery touring exhibition
Greg Roberts and Ian Reed Collection

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Claire Holt stayed in a pasanggrahan in Palopo and attended dances 15 km. to the south in a place called Ponrang, in the home of Luwu’s former royalty. Palopo holds caché for me not just because of Claire Holt’s adventures, but because iron was fetched from there to make the sacred Javanese kris. Holt mentions that between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, the Luwu kingdom used to be the mightiest in Celebes. After that Makassar rose in importance.

As luck would have it, we were to enter the former Luwu kingdom on the Islamic holiday of Idul Adha. the day when cows and goats are slaughtered by those who have means and the meat divided among the poor. The town of Palopo was more or less deserted. Not a shop or restaurant was open. By the time we arrived, we had already been driving for hours and breakfast had receded into the distant past. We spied a hotel and decided to see if we could find some lunch within.

The hotel was lovely and all the place settings were inviting. There was tremendous hustle and bustle in the kitchen and eventually we were told to simply eat from the remainders of the buffet. It was a feast day.

Eventually the owner came to sit down with us. She was Bugis, swathed in Islamic black, and was clearly very joyful. She explained that it was a happy day. Many animals had been slaughtered and the meat was being given to the poor whom she had found in advance and to whom she had given coupons.

In our turn, we explained our mission, saying that we hoped to find remainders of the old kingdom and also the iron mines. She had heard of the Luwu and knew that the modest little mosque next door was reputed to be the oldest in Indonesia. Beyond that, she said, there was not much interest among the people in the town for their history and culture. She knew nothing about the source of iron, but knew that there had been fine krisses made in the vicinity.

In fact, she had a kris that probably originated with Luwu royalty but she did not know how to care for it, and may perhaps have damaged it in her attempt. I suggested that she could learn from the Kraton in Yogya. She responded that the kris was just a material item and it did not interest her very much. She declared that was, in fact, not interested in the kris. She was interested in immortality and worshipping Allah. She would be willing to sell the kris.  Apparently a sale belonged to the category of matters of interest to her.

She would not let us pay for our meal and expressed joy that she had been given the opportunity to give food to travellers passing by. She would not touch the hand of Pak Tauhid and Mas Nashir when we bade her goodbye because she had set this boundary as a Muslim woman.

We left to visit the old palace – now – museum. I left with a feeling of deep regret that our hostess’s generosity did not extend to culture. I would have liked her to give her kris to the local museum.  And I would rather have paid for my meal.

Nenek Panggao

Today we visited Nenek Panggao. This meeting was the central purpose of our trip. On the first day of my travels, three years ago, with my photographer MJA Nashir, he said that he would like to take me to visit her.  Nenek Panggao is high up there in our pantheon of amazing textile makers. She is also a member of our collection of "The Last Weaver".

She is a Sa’dan Toraja spinner. She had learned to spin from her grandmother during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (WW II). The cloth was all used up and people turned again to their cotton shrubs, spinning wheels and looms. But why does Nenek Panggao still spin? For tourists! And she let us know that the elderly woman living on one side had died and been buried. On the other side, the elderly woman was ailing. There is only herself left now, and she is 83 years old. “Will it all be over when you leave?” I asked. She pointed to her daughter. Her daughter will take over –but the yarn that she makes is not as good. She needs more practice.

Nenek Panggao had a variety of textiles in her stall, the nicest of which were made with handspun yarn. She said that while she was the last in Sa’dan, there were spinners in the more Westerly Toraja area where the cloths were woven. They fetched her finished yarn, used it in their textiles and sold them in Nenek Panggao’s stall.

Nenek Panggao had learned to weave but she could only weave plain black or white cloth, as used ritually by the Sa’dan. She couldn’t make either ikat or supplementary weft textiles. She explained that each region had its own strengths – and hers, clearly, was spinning.

“Tourists think it is easy, so I invite them to try it. They discover that it is very difficult.”

“I know it is difficult,” I said, “but I would like to try it with your help.”

She was delighted to be accommodating and I received a lesson in which I learned that there must be balance between the speed with which the wheel is turned and the speed that the spinner pulls on the cotton being spun (coordination between two hands). The hand holding the cotton must not pinch it too tightly. The wheel must be spun at the right moment. The spindle must be balanced or it will fall out. And so on. There are so many factors to take into account at the same time. Spinning is top sport. Feeling, Hand-eye coordination. Practice. Balance. 

Perhaps I will spin when I am old. Watching Nenek Panggao, it seemed such a nice way to pass the time.