January 29, 2015

Feeling Blue

'Indigo' by Catherine E. McKinley

Januari is coming to an end and already I didn't keep to my good intentions. Here is a first post about what I'm up to!
I just started reading the first pages of 'Indigo, In Search of the Color That Seduced the World', in Dutch 'A search of a women, to a colour and herself'. This book really takes me back, back to my own search, my journey to Batik.
The book starts with the main character, the writer herself, wondering and waiting in Accra in Ghana for Indigo to cross her path. I remember my impatient, feverish quest for a fabric I came to believe didn't exist. Why are you looking for that? No one understood, and when they reacted like they knew what I was looking for, I was so disappointed finding myself in places where the art of Batik was slowly dying.
I was certain that I would never find the romantic image I had in my mind. It was fabricated with photos from books, and I wondered if it maybe never existed at all.

I was walking on the craquelé patterned ground, like the coloured veins in Batik, I recognized the pattern that was used in the Rembang Regency. It was so warm, but it was so beautiful. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the pembatiks sitting in the shade under a bamboo hut. It was everything I imagined and yet something I never saw before. It was still here! The Art of and love for Batik! (see blogpost 'Jeruk' from October 2009)
When I returned from my short journey, my search went on. Looking for stories, looking for meaning. What connects us, what connects it all? What symbol could tell the whole story? Or is it not a symbol, but a color? Or a bit of both? The hand on the cave wall saying 'I am here'. Expressing what most of us are trying to do, marking a part of time.

"Fabrics told a story and had a social status. In some cases they were literal monuments of a social history. The stories had depth which I never expected. They were complex, hidden behind a superficial beauty, so people without the proper knowledge couldn't read them. I wanted to read them, and I wanted to be read when I wore them, I wanted to make their stories my own."
- Catherine E. McKinley in Indigo

My journey to Batik is an ongoing story and brings me on unexpected, very welcome paths. A few weeks back I decided to use 2015 to learn more about natural colouring, and more so about the history of it. The history of man is strongly connected to fabric, or how 'Studies in Textiel' put it, the thread of history.
Or in Dutch 'Rode draad'/'Red thread'. Red is probably the oldest colour used by mankind.  In 2000 paleoanthropologists found evidence that, between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago, Late Stone Age people were scraping and grinding ochre, a clay colored red by iron oxide, probably with the intention of using it to color their bodies at Pinnacle Point, an archeological site found on the coast of South Africa.* Some of the earliest recorded textiles were colored red with iron oxide. Linen fragments found in Egyptian tombs from around 2323-2150 BC were dyed pink with iron oxide and in Egypt it was used as a colorant for cloth until around 1304 BC. In Mesopotamia, woven fabric dating from 2500 BC was dyed with a brilliant red ochre.**
From the 15th century the Dutch had an important position in the textile dye market. Growing Meekrap/Rose Madder*** in the region Goeree-Overflakkee to make red. The red was used to dye wool, silk and cotton, both in the Dutch textile industry as abroad.
End of the 19th century chemical dye ended the cultivation of Meekrap, it totally stopped in 1920 making the plant today an almost extinct specimen.

The story of Indigo is quite similar and it amazed me when I read that there are 300 plants that were used to make the colour blue. In Europe, before Indigo was introduced by Spaniards from Central America, we used 'Woad' ('Wede').
Till the 16th century Europe was the main supplier of blue dye. Woad was grown in the Netherlands, but grew better in the South of Germany and France. Woad was used for a long time, because seeds of the plants were found in caves dating back from the Stone and the Iron Age. Also was it found in pottery from the Iron Age. A note by Julius Caesar 55 BC mentioned that Picts in England painted their faces and bodies blue before gong in to battle.
The dye chemical extracted from Woad is Indigo, the same dye extracted from "true indigo", Indigofera tinctoria, but in a lower concentration. ****
The plant, Indigofera tinctoria, was one of the original sources of indigo dye. It has been naturalized to tropical and temperate Asia, as well as parts of Africa, but its native habitat is unknown since it has been in cultivation worldwide for many centuries. *****

Bottle with natural Indigo dye, from Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen (Vlisco) ******

Instead of tipping my toes in the pond of knowledge I dyed the points of my hair blue, to fill my mind with Indigo. Synchronicity is never far away, so more Indigo knowledge and related stories will be following this post. Reading and sharing is my best way of learning and I hope you will enjoy it too.

* 'Red' on Wikipedia
**Post about 'Red Ochre' on Sea Island Indigo
*** 'Meekrap' on Natuurinformatie / 'Red Madder' on Wikipedia
**** 'Woad'/ 'Wede' on Wikipedia
***** 'Indigofera tinctoria' on Wikipedia
****** Found on Het Geheugen van Nederland - online archive

January 20, 2015

Good Taste

Have another post on my mind concerning Blue, but I have to share this one first because of a little heart I received on Instagram when I asked what to share first here. 
In October I visited a lot exhibitions, among it was the exhibition 'Asian Art and Dutch Taste' at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. When I first heard about it, I didn't really feel like going to it. When I heard there were a few Batik Belanda's on display, I had to see it!
I turned it in a last-minute-exhibition-visit-day-trip-search-for-batiks-and-waxprints-tour. With my freshly bought shocking pink and yellow Banana wax print by African Textiles Holland, I went to the museum. It was around lunch time and thinking of the coffee I was going to buy, I was quite surprised finding myself in this hug queue. I forgot it was a Dutch holiday and that they had the Mark Rothko exhibition.
When I finally reached the cash register the lady told me I had to pay extra for the Rothko exhibition. I promised her that I was only there for the almost ending 'Asian Art and Dutch Taste', had to pay anyway, too bad, because I'm really not a big Abstract painting fan. I know my art schooling should have thought me better, but no, it's just not there.
After putting all my stuff in a safe, carrying my camera, notebook, phone, pen, wallet and handkerchiefs I could finally go to the Batiks! When I entered the exhibition-room, which was the same space where they displayed 'Gold from Java - Silver from Batavia' two years ago, I had to stop the urge to run through the rooms to find the Batik Belanda's. 

Over the last four hundred years, many Dutch citizens have lived in the Far East on a permanent or temporary basis. They all had one thing in common: they came first and foremost in search of wealth and opportunity that were beyond their grasp in Europe. Inspired by the success of the Dutch East Indies (VOC) countless Dutchmen and Europeans tried their luck in the Orient. Their main motivation was trade with (and within) Asia, but the encounter with previously unknown cultures had an impact not only on them and their society, but equally on communities in Asia. The extent of these impacts should never be underestimated. This exhibition shows how the culture shock affected the material culture of both East and West.*

The exhibition is an overview of the collection of Jan Veenendaal. He collects Art and Folkart from the VOC period. 'Asian Art and Dutch Taste' presents two different categories of objects. The first consists of artefacts produced in the Indies specifically for the Dutch and, more generally, European market. Each of these things originated in a local oriental tradition but has been modified to appeal to Western tastes. The second consists of domestic and ornamental items produced for Western, Eurasian and Asian households in Asia itself. Here the process is reversed: it is Western traditions that have been adapted to suit oriental tastes.**

Export porcelain from China and Japan
17th-18th centuries, collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

 Book-shaped writing slate, 1900-1925

One of the goods that was on auction already in 1693 

The next room of the exhibition confused me. The furniture was nicely displayed, but somehow it felt off. The room mixed furniture from Sri Lanka and Java with VOC porcelain in cabinets and blow-ups on the wall of "Dutch ladies". 
The illustrated gentlemen on the porcelain are funny looking characters and I wonder if they were immortalized in their best light. 
The dark, wood carved, ivory inlaid furniture made me feel guilty, not proud or glamorous. I can't explain it, I knew that I would feel this way about this exhibition. It has nothing to do with the craftsmanship that went into these pieces, it has to do with the feeling that money and good taste don't mix that well.
The Dutch maybe ordered these pieces and the makers maybe changed them to be more to their liking, but it is not a true mixture of culture, it's business.


The part of the exhibition for which I came, I visited twice. In the center of the room were 5 mannequins wearing traditional clothing common during the colonial periode in Indonesia. Behind them a blow-up of one of Jan Daniël Beijnon paintings 'Itinerant Native Musicians before a group of trees' from around 1865. Jan Daniël Beijnon (1830 - 1877) was a painter in Batavia. I remember something in the Tropenmuseum display with a handsome man on a motorcycle, but not sure if it was this bloke. His paintings are very popular and I'm always quite fond of his beauties of mixed origin. The room was, of course, dark with his paintings spotlighted. I tried to document the Batiks well, but it's so hard with them on display like this. Why not show the full cloth, I couldn't understand it. I wanted to trace the patterns, make a copy in my mind. In the Exhibition Handout only this is written:
Women in sarong kabaja
Kabaja's, 1750-1907: cotton
machine lace, embroidery 
and sarong, batik belanda,
1890-1910, batik on cotton
From what I gathered the catalog doesn't share more information or pictures. I know that one is signed by J. Jans, this information was not found out by me, but someone very rebel worthy during the opening. The sarongs are all red, white and blue and made me suddenly realize the reference to our flag. Two have the beautiful, typical cornflower blue, the other one is much darker. 
The craftsmanship in the one signed by J. Jans is very high, for me they are all gorgeous, but let me explain: The colors are very strong still, and keeping such a big part white in the design, really demands some skills. Red is shining, which can be done by ironing the fabric making it a more luxurious batik.
I couldn't really take a closer look of the one in the back, but the motif intrigues me. It is very bold and not very Belanda. In 'Fabric of Enchantment' is a photo of a similar Batik from Semarang made around 1910. The influence of India is clearly found in both. According to 'Fabric of Enchantment' it was mostly made for export to Sumatra were they enjoyed the reference to the former imported Indian textiles.
The last one, on the right in the display, was my favorite. I loved the simplicity of it. In blue an interwoven pattern of flowers, in the red grains and blossom. This one benefitted from this way of displaying, it was more modern and less flowery-female, it was tougher. Made me wonder which lady wore what. It was a small gathering of Dutch ladies surrounded by their male friends in pajamas.

'Young lady with dog' by Jan Daniël Beijnon from around 1873

'Young lady in rocking chair' Jan Daniël Beijnon from around 1869

 Shadows of the jewelry 

If I find out more about these Batiks, I will add it later to this post

* Introduction in the Exhibition Handout Asian Art and Dutch Taste'