Batik as Art

This ancient Asian craft finds a home in the American Southwest.

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Bowen: My Studio

Image: © Dorothy “Bunny” Bowen remote
"My Studio" / Batik on cotton

The word batik is Javanese and has been translated as "good points or dots." This refers to the tiny dots in Indonesian patterns that give them a lively quality and that show a mastery of technique. A standard definition of the medium of batik is that it is a way of coloring fabric with successive dyebaths, producing a design by using wax to resist dyes on cloth.

The process seems to have evolved on several continents as long ago as several thousand years. Ancient pieces of batiked cloth have been found in present-day China, Indian, Egypt, Peru, Indonesia and other countries. Though the birthplace of batik in unknown, the medium has reached its highest form on the island of Java where all aspects of the artform have religious and historical significance.

At first, Indonesian batik artists used only the natural indigo dye, so the cloth was white (the god Shiva, symbolizing good) and blue (the god Vishnu, symbolizing wisdom). Legend says that a brown dye (the god Brahma, symbolizing strength) made of tree bark came into use after soldiers returned from battle wearing blood-stained batiked cloth.

Approximately 500 years ago, Javanese batik was done by women in the royal family and many designs created in the palace are still produced today in varying forms. When the Chinese arrived on Java about 100 years ago, many Indonesians began producing batik cloth as a business, which continues today. The introduction of German dyes by the Dutch in this century inspired more colorful batiks.

Haight: Snow Cactus II

Image: © 1995 Cathy Haight
"Snow Cactus II" / Batik on cotton

Throughout the centuries, Indonesian batik has been influenced by the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religions. Each traditional Indonesian pattern has a name and a meaning, as does each shape within the pattern. For example, one of the wedding patterns reserved for wear by the bride and groom contains square forms that signify rice fields. When the squares contain the ukel shape it means the fields are full of rice. Another wedding pattern contains a house shape within a butterfly pattern, signifying that the family will live happily.

Other common patterns are parang (originally only for the royal family), garuda (king of the air), sekarjagad (map of the world), and truntum (for the parents of the bride). Each pattern may have dozens of variations, each with a different significance.

Traditional Indonesian batik is created by using tree resin, insect wax, coconut oil, paraffin or old wax. Several of these materials are combined in different proportions and each formula is used for a different purpose. The most common fabric is fine cotton, though silk is also used.

For batik tulis, each design is hand-drawn with melted wax using either a janting or a jegul, usually by a woman. A janting has a small brass bowl at the end of a handle; a tiny spout allows the melted wax to run onto the fabric. A jegul is made from cotton fibers and is used to brush the wax on large areas. Batik jap involves the use of an intricately patterned stamp made from copper strips and is usually used by the men.

In basic traditional Indonesian batik, the cloth is prepared by rinsing, starching and pounding. The design is applied in wax with janting and jegul and the piece is dyed in an indigo bath. Next, some parts of the design are scraped off to allow the next color to penetrate those areas. Then it is waxed again to preserve some of the blue parts and dyed another color. This process may be repeated many times. The last step is to remove all the wax in a procedure using boiling water and caustic soda.

Cracking or crackling is a process which produces dark lines all over the design of the fabric. Using paraffin or beeswax and then crumpling the fabric creates hairline cracks in the wax, allowing dye to enter the fabric and produce the texture that is part of the unique charm of batik. However, too much cracking can destroy detail and subtle color gradations or blendings. While cracking is not admired in fine Indonesian batik, it is used by contemporary Indonesian batik artists, especially on Bali where batik is geared toward tourists.

Albuquerque artists Dorothy “Bunny” Bowen, Cathy Haight and Alice Valdez all began as painters, were attracted to the flowing dyes and texture of batik, and have adapted the traditional batik methods to create their own distinctive artforms.

Alice Valdez (represented by Weems Galleries remote) uses the traditional dyebath method; she employs beeswax as a resist and begins with the lightest colors continuing through the darkest colors. Cathy Haight (represented by Amapola Gallery remote) usually begins with one of the darkest values, contrary to the way most Western batik is done. After several colors, she removes all the wax using the Javanese procedure with boiling water and caustic soda, allowing her to begin waxing all over again to obtain complex colors and layering. Bunny Bowen (represented by Amapola Gallery remote, Framing Concepts Gallery remote) uses raw silk or smooth white cotton. For the resist, Bunny applies melted paraffin wax from partially-used church candles. Her fiber reactive dyes and chemicals are applied with a watercolor brush.

While their techniques may differ, with each artist the process is many-layered: after a color is applied, set, rinsed and dried, certain areas are waxed to preserve that color. Then another dye is added and waxed and the process is repeated. Each dying and waxing may take one day, and each piece may take two weeks or more to complete, depending on the complexity of design.

Thanks to Cathy Haight and her teacher, Bambang Otoro from the Batik Institute in Jogjakarta, and to Dorothy “Bunny” Bowen.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Albuquerque - Volume 11

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Collector’s Resources


Weems Galleries | 505-293-6133

Santa Fe

The Johnsons of Madrid Galleries of Fine & Fiber Art | 505-471-1054
Tansey Contemporary rem 652 Canyon Road | 505-995-8513


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