Last year, the attention was suddenly, if momentarily, focused on Indonesian Batik and Batik in general. Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham’s collection of Indonesian batik went on display in the USA and after been shown at various places around the country, was exhibited at the Textile Museum in Washington DC- where incidentally, I showed my own batik art in the early nineties. Batik was written about in the Press, talked about on TV and on the radio and admired in a way that it never has before in America. For a moment, it looked as if Batik would enter the mainstream and maybe even become compulsory dress amongst civil servants on certain days of the month as it is in Malaysia, where the art is part of the life blood of the economy and the country. Perhaps I raised my hopes too high but Batik did, for a short time, get quite a high profile in this country; the process was explained over and over again, photos of Barack smiling in a sharp batik shirt were everywhere and the exhibit in DC got a lot of attention.
The story is that Barack’s mother married an Indonesian and went to live in Indonesia in the 1960s. Ann Dunham was an anthropologist; she fell in love with the local batik cloth designs and, according to Barack’s half-sister, Maya, wore batik all the time when the family lived in Jakarta. She didn’t buy fancy batiks- nothing antique or too dressy- but she had an educated eye and her unusual beige, cocoa and coffee-coloured batiks, with their elaborate white, black and blue chop patterns were carefully chosen-and frequently worn.
Says her daughter
“She had clothes made from batik cloth to fit her robust dimensions and she would often go and speak to the batik sellers and artists; she became very much a part of their lives and incorporated their stories into her love for the crafts.”
As a one–time weaver, Dunham came to understand Indonesian culture through its fabrics. On that Continent as it is in many places, cloth is the marker of society and she was naturally drawn to cloth, for its delicate patterns and tactile quality- and to cloth that was made locally. All clothes reflect some element of a society. Particularly with batik, what one wears, the motif, the size of the motif and how one wears it, all reflect some aspect of where one fits in a society. Her daughter remembers her mother coming home with her batiks and fondling them with great pleasure.
“She’d take them out and lay them out everywhere and really appreciate and enjoy them as cloth, as testament to the stories of the people who made them as ornament. She genuinely loved them.”
Ann Dunham went on to work with micro-credit programmes that helped batik artists and other artisans in Indonesia. She died of ovarian cancer in 1995 and her high-school-teacher daughter, Maya, and Barack Obama became the keepers of her beloved collection of intricately patterned Indonesian batiks. Her Ph.D. thesis, about craft industries in rural Indonesia, has been published by Duke University Press in the USA, fifteen years after her death. Entitled ‘Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia’, it is a scholarly book and runs about 300 pages, focusing on a blacksmithing village called Kajar, in the province of Yogyakarta on the island of Java. The work has been whittled down significantly from its original form, which ran for more than a thousand pages and investigated the socioeconomics of several village-based handicrafts, including batik, pottery, and the making of puppets used in shadow theater. Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack’s half-sister, wrote a foreword to the book, remembering how they spent some time in Indonesia as children while their mother worked as a development and micro-credit consultant and did fieldwork for the dissertation. She says that her mother was both a real romantic and pragmatist at the same time, interested in objects that were beautiful in their own right and at the same time, useful. Of the blacksmithing village at the center of the dissertation, she says “Metalworking was an embodiment of that fusion between art and livelihood and between beauty and utility that was very much in keeping with her vision as an anthropologist.” Her research and writing continued off and on until 1991 and she submitted her thesis a year later. When she died, she left behind a collection of floppies that contained it all. It sat in her daughter’s closet for over a decade before Maya found it, doing some cleaning. Her mother did not have time to edit her work before she died but always hoped to get it published. Eventually, Alice Dewey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii took on the task and cut it down to a more manageable size before the manuscript was passed onto its eventual publishers. The connection with President Obama is probably what led to the book going into print, rather than the quality of the work. But it has aroused a fair amount of interest in the academic world. Says her daughter “It is very moving for me to read the dissertation because I find that she’s really a fine scholar and very thorough, very detailed, and very meticulous. It’s very professional, and it adheres to the mandates of objectivity that are used in the field, to some degree, but it’s also full of feeling, and it’s clear that she cares deeply about the ideas and the people and the place.” It’s hard to know if there will be long term repercussions for the global batik trade following the Obama Batik Exhibition; perhaps public awareness about the art has risen a little and batik was a fashionable theme in last summer’s clothes in the USA. For many people, it was the first time that they had even heard the word ‘Batik’ and with some, the name will stick. But in the USA, public consciousness of the art has a long way to go before it catches up with its mainstream acceptance in the Malaysian cultural fabric. And shall we ever see President Barack Obama wearing a colourful batik shirt on the front cover of MyBatik Magazine? Don’t hold your breath on this one, dear readers- but stranger things have happened. In a world where a black man is President of the USA, baby sheep are cloned, disco terrorism is a fact of life and pigs can almost fly, anything is apparently possible. In fact, I’ve just emailed Barack requesting an interview with him for this magazine; I’m sitting by the phone right now, waiting for him to call me back