Sharing Creative Process: Brahma Tirta Sari’s Batik Mentorship
By Sonja Dahl

Surface Design Journal, Winter 2015/2016: Wax and Fiber

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 “In order to see the unseen, one must first see the seeable. You can’t love someone without truly seeing them first.” 1

Dualities such as this—the seen and unseen, or “seeable” and “unseeable”—form the baseline or heartbeat of much traditional wisdom across the world’s cultures. In Java, home of Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam, the cofounders of Brahma Tirta Sari Batik Studio in Yogyakarta, this particular duality illustrates the significance of balance and appreciation between tangible and intangible experiences. Such wisdom is derived from centuries of syncretic cultural influences accumulated into a body of knowledge that forms the heart of the Javanese cosmology. Not so much a philosophy or religion, this cosmology constitutes more of a way of life informed by ritual and deep investment in maintaining a harmonious relationship between the dualities of seen and unseen, microcosmos and macrocosmos, individual and collective. One facet of this overarching system of thought known as Tribawana, or “The Three Worlds,” underpins Ismoyo and Fliam’s approach to batik making and holds the key to a deeper understanding of their work.

Essentially, Tribawana is a three-part worldview comprised of the seen/tangible, the unseen/intangible, and the universal consciousness that connects everything and everyone. In Ismoyo and Fliam’s words, “Tribawana describes existence as divided into the Three Worlds of human experience, human’s connection to the self as well as with community and nature, and with the creative source that gives birth to the creative spirit.” The Three Worlds concept, when used as a prism for forming and giving meaning to an artwork, provides consciousness of unity and the interconnectedness of life and living. In Tribawana, it is understood that everything, even static objects, have energy and life because of this deep connectivity. It is the work of people to maintain balance in their relationships with all three aspects of existence, a task we are struggling with on a collective level in the world today.

Because it is creative energy that connects everything within this system, Ismoyo and Fliam have developed their artistic work in accordance with this understanding. They recognize that artists play a significant role as communicators between humanity, the natural and built worlds we inhabit, and our traditions and ancestors. The ancestors, as Ismoyo and Fliam understand them, are the unending re-constellations of all that exists in this realm and the intangible realm, constituting an incredibly potent and important relationship with humanity’s creative work. The name they gave their collaboration three decades ago—Brahma Tirta Sari—is derived from this understanding. It means, essentially, “creativity is the source of all knowledge.” Batik is a medium that beautifully and poetically embodies this power of connectivity, growing as it does from thousands of years of knowledge passed along through generations of makers and wearers. In contemporary Java and abroad, batik is increasingly transforming itself through the continued work of traditionally trained artisans, the fashion and garment industry, and through the conceptual explorations of contemporary artists. UNESCO’s 2009 recognition of batik as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Indonesia prompted Ismoyo and Fliam to think more deeply about the meaning of intangibility in relation to the very tangible art form of batik.

The ritual and cultural functions of batik are one form of such intangible heritage. A compelling example of this is the traditional Javanese seventh-month pregnancy ceremony called Mitoni. The apex of this increasingly rarely practiced ceremony involves protectively wrapping the expectant mother’s belly in many layers of symbolically powerful cloth. The symbolism embedded in many of Java’s batik motifs functions as a language with which people can communicate between the Three Worlds. Such intangible communication strengthens community on a feeling level. For example, the semen motifs (from a word meaning to sprout or grow) are all derived from the natural world and usually include mountains, the tree of life, the elements, animals, and stylized wing patterns representative of the mythical Garuda bird. These designs both connect people to their environment and represent access to the intangible. The parang motif is a power symbol in Javanese traditional batik designs, it represents rasa (a deep intuitive sensitivity) and the mind. Wrapping oneself in such potent symbols can focus the mind and intentions and express gratitude, transmuting meaning through cloth into body and soul, connecting the wearer to their seen and unseen communities.

Because of this Ismoyo and Fliam always emphasize that batik itself is not only significant as a made object with ceremonial and cultural meaning, but also as a creative process that connects artists to the land and to their ancestors. It is a meditative medium, slow and exacting; in Fliam’s words, “the process of making batik requires a quiet heart.” To work with batik is to move with the flow of hot wax, much like the flow of hot molten rock that forms Java’s volcanic landscape and supports the ever-shifting planes of our entire earth’s surface. Batik, in this sense, is tectonic.

In March 2013 I attended one of Ismoyo and Fliam’s Creative Process Workshops through Babaran Segaragunung Culture House, a collaborative platform for mentorship and programming that they run with other members of their community. Before we began our first tutorial in batik tulis (hand drawn batik using the canting tool), Ismoyo explained their philosophy of creative process based upon rasa: deep feeling and intuition. Because batik as a creative medium is already linked to the history of the people and landscape of Java, the process of batiking itself is connective, a means for developing deeper relationship with place and time. Before touching fingers to canting, we began with olah tubuh: body work. With eyes closed we listened to the susurration of wind and foliage, chickens pecking around and chattering, distant birdsong, airplanes, motorbikes, and insects. Ismoyo encouraged us to feel our feet on the ground, drawing energy up from the earth, through our soles and muscles and breath, and guiding it down our arms, through our fingers into the canting tools, flowing out with the hot wax onto cloth. In this way our bodies become sensitive conduits within a larger system of creative energy.

This sensitivity is something universally available to artists, a deep well of inspiration that people from all cultures throughout time have tapped into. This is something that Ismoyo and Fliam have learned very directly in their international collaborations with the Utopia Urapuntja Aboriginal community and Ernabella Arts in Australia, members of the Salish tribe in the United States, and with artists from Mali and Nigeria. The batik cloths resulting from these collaborations are embedded with the dreams, symbols, and creative intelligence of each of the makers involved. They are geologic-layered records of their makers’ intangible cultural inheritance, and markers for the relationships built and respect fostered in those shared creative spaces.

Indeed, at the core of Ismoyo and Fliam’s creative process is the understanding that making art is a form of making relationships. By honoring the process of the making as much as the end product, they demonstrate how artists can build community with their world, both animate and inanimate. At heart, what they are teaching is how to make art generously, to approach the canting and cap tools, the wax and cloth, as well as the entire ancestry of batik, from a place of generosity and care. They offer the analogy of the lotus plant to describe such a way of life and art making. The flower is the vertical element, that which always grows upwards or forwards. It describes the development of ideas and the continual evolution of traditions. The leaves are the horizontal element, that which provides a floating, flexible, and non-hierarchical stability in the world. The root grows down through water and soil, connecting the plant to its place in the world, its ancestry and sustenance. All three elements, like the three aspects of Tribawana, work together to form an interconnected whole.

This way of thinking about—and indeed living—a creative life is deeply needed in our contemporary moment. Ismoyo and Fliam’s batik work and creative process mentorship offer a powerful foil to humanity’s continued and deleterious rupturing of our world’s three-part balance. Cloth-making itself is rich with metaphors for connectivity, network, binding together, and protection. So work such as Ismoyo and Fliam’s, which accounts for all aspects of a cloth’s formation— inner, social, and ecological awareness—and shares that wisdom freely, can point us all as creative beings toward a more balanced relationship with our world.

FOOTNOTE [1] Quote from an author interview with Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam, March 2013.
ENDNOTE To learn more about Brahma Tirta Sari Batik Studio, visit: www.brahmatirtasari.org To learn more about Babaran Segaragunung Culture House, visit: www.en.babaransegaragunung.org