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'Batik is Another Name For Life'

This piece of cloth can unite an entire nation—regardless of religion, culture, or ethnicity. Batik somehow became a symbol of Indonesian nationalism.

This article was written in conjunction with Guinness as a part of their "One Indonesia" campaign. Read more about it here.

Batik has some royal roots. The intricate, colorful fabric used to be the uniform of the Javanese aristocracy. It was what they wore inside the keraton, or the royal grounds, in cities like Yogyakarta and Solo. The fabric was the work of skilled artisans who painted each ornate line by hand, imbuing the designs with a sense of deep meaning. That parang rusak batik may now just look like someone's Friday work outfit, but those tight rolling lines were meant to symbolize the belief that a man should never give up on life, just like the ocean's waves never stop crashing against the shore. Deep, right? Somewhere along the way, batik stopped being associated with royalty and somehow became a symbol of Indonesian nationalism. I always wondered if this was just so Malaysia couldn't suddenly claim the fabric as its own. I, personally, have conflicted feelings about batik. Almost everyone in Indonesia has at least one piece of batik clothing in their wardrobe, but few people know about its real history. Yet, this is also a bit of a blessing, because, somehow, this piece of cloth can unite an entire nation—regardless of religion, culture, or ethnicity. Given the political climate in Indonesia right now, it's worth taking a moment to stop and focus on these unifying elements of our culture that we all share in common.

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This is exactly what Guinness had in mind when it asked Darbotz, a famed Jakarta street artist, and Ykha Amelz, an amazing illustrator, to work together to make their own contemporary batik design. "It's something I always wish to bring into my work, which is to display a certain Indonesian heritage and value in them," Ykha said. The pair took inspiration from the principles of 'Pancha Mahabhuta' combining opposing elements of Fire (Teja) with Water (Apah) and Earth (Perthiwi) with Air (Bayu) to create a harmonious and united pattern that speaks to Indonesia's ability to pull together as one nation. "It was a privilege and a challenge to work on this project as it is the first time I am working with Batik motifs and using Batik Ideology as the inspiration," Darbotz said. "I love how these elements represent unity in diversity specifically for Indonesia and for me as an individual." Dudung Alie Sjahbana, an artist and batik businessman who owns a showroom in Pekalongan, Central Java, told me that the fabric has evolved over the years. Batik patterns typically appeared as clothes, but now you see it on wood, metal, and even ceramics. Today, batik is as much a symbol of cultural identity as it is clothes. "There's a reason why batik is accepted by all kinds of tribes," Dudung said. "It goes back to the history of Majapahit era. Now in Jambi, Bengkulu, Toraja they all have their own patterns."

Dudung isn't bullshitting. The tradition of making batik could be found in Papua, over 3,000 kilometers from Java. In Papua, people have taken batik and made it their own. Some of the most common patterns are of the bird of paradise, the honai traditional house, and the musical instrument tifa, or the statue kamoro. Jimmy Hendrick Aafar is the owner of Port Numbay, a famous batik brand in Jayapura, Papua. He started as an assistant designer in Jakarta. After learning to make batik for a year in Pekalongan, Central Java, Jimmy decided to go back to Jayapura and develop the batik business. In 2007, he established Port Numbay. "The patterns of Port Numbay batik have their own philosophy," Jimmy told me. "Every design has a message, for example, the seagull and fish pattern symbolizes a symbiotic relationship." Some of the patterns that Jimmy makes are not new. For example, you could trace the Asmat statue batik pattern to drawings of people from the Asmat tribe inside old caves in Jayapura. The Papuan batik-making process is very similar to that of Javanese batik. The only difference is the colors, as the Papuan batik are typically more brownish in color, possibly caused by Dammar gum, the raw material they use. The popularity of Port Numbay blew up and now it has fans from all over the world. In 2013, Jimmy brought his work in Australia, the Netherlands, and Italy. His batik wear goes anywhere from Rp 200,000 ($14 USD) to Rp 5 million ($368 USD), depending on the process—written or stamped—and the fabric material. I may be the last person who gives a shit about batik. In my closet there are only two batik shirts, both hand-me-downs from my father. One is made of silk, and the other one is a cotton shirt produced by a famous batik boutique. I've had them for six years and used it only twice. I didn't write this story, I would have forgotten about having them entirely. Some people may see batik as its mere functions, which is to make them feel appropriately dressed in every occasion from weddings to the office. But what Dudung Alie Sjahbana told me before we hung up the phone is intriguing: "Batik is another name for life."