Creating Art in Yogyakarta

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When I wasn’t exploring Yogyakarta or returning domesticated parakeets to the wild (see last blog post) during my two months in Indonesia, I was working in the studio with my artist-mentor, Mella.  

The “studio” was an old, white, square-shaped building with a garden in the middle. It was built sometime between the late sixteenth century and the mid twentieth century during the time of Dutch occupation in Indonesia, back when the country was referred to as the “Dutch East Indies.”

While doing a bit of research on the architectural style prominent during this period, I came across this Wikipedia image of an “1828 coffee plantation villa in Indes style, near Magelang, Central Java.” The photograph, which is located a mere 30 miles Northwest of Yogyakarta, shares a variety of features with the studio building in which I was living and working. The long, wood window frames and doorways look especially familiar to me, as do the white walls and red tile roofing. The low, horizontal design (which reminds me of the shape of a Pizza Hut building in the United States) also characterized the studio building.

This sort of architectural design, which emphasizes natural ventilation and sunlight and literally centralizes nature, struck me as very different from the buildings I occupy at home and at school in the United States. Nature seemed to play such a huge and important role in Dutch/Javanese building design.

Back home in the United States, where air conditioning units run rampant and gardens are tucked behind homes in backyards, nature seemed to play a much smaller role in popular architecture.

The layout of the interior of the studio building was equally atypical. The open-air garden dominated the layout of the inside of the building. Surrounding it were two closed-off rooms, one of which was my bedroom, along with a bathroom and three larger open spaces. One of these larger open spaces functioned as a small kitchen and the two other areas functioned as studio-space, which was where Mella and I worked during the daytime. These spaces were only enclosed by three walls, meaning that the two studio areas and the kitchen were basically halfway outside. This allowed for excellent ventilation when using potent paints and glues during the day, but posed a unique challenge as soon as the sun set. (Since it was winter in Indonesia, this began to happen around four in the afternoon.)

Around this time each day, swarms of bats would begin to circle overhead the studio. Hunting for bits of garbage and food, they plunged one-by-one into the garden and swooped into the studio space. Once inside the studio, they perched in the wooden rafters of the high ceiling and camped out for the night.

In the morning, the bats would be gone but bat poop and nibbled-on pieces of fruit littered the floor of the studio. This posed a serious threat to artwork that was left on the floor of the studio overnight. Each day after working, Mella and I would make sure that no artwork would be sacrificed to the bats. We carefully hung her huge canvases on one of the walls to dry and made sure that my own drawing and painting materials were tucked carefully away, out of range of our pesky nocturnal guests. Luckily, our efforts proved to be successful and bat poop never became an accidental material in any of the art we created.  

The art I created during my time working in the studio varied in process and material. During my first few weeks in Yogyakarta, I spent time experimenting with painting and collage techniques. This was only after realizing that I had arrived in Yogyakarta with practically no art supplies. I brought only my sketchbook, a couple of pencils, an old sewing pattern, and a small roll of garden netting which I had found at a hardware store back in North Carolina. I planned to use the pattern and the netting as collage elements, with the intent of continuing to pursue a collage-style I had been experimenting with during my last semester at school.

In order to actually use these things and begin to create stuff, however, I also needed glue, paint, and paintbrushes. I expressed this to Mella, and she told me to get onto the back of her motorcycle. I was stunned. All my life, it had seemed, my parents had been telling me about how dangerous motorcycles are.

“Never ride a motorcycle,” they had said to me countless times. My parents are both avid cyclists and their criticism of any species of the “bike” family had always struck me as a bit disingenuous. Still, their warnings echoed in my head. Never ride a motorcycle….never ride a motorcycle …..never…. ride….a….motorcycle…   So, I grabbed the spare helmet Mella offered me and slung myself onto the back of her motorcycle in pursuit of art supplies. 

As we zipped through the city streets, weaving in and out of narrow alleyways and around trucks and other motorcycles, I struggled to maintain my balance on the shoebox-sized backseat of the motorcycle. Sensing my discomfort, Mella laughed and instructed me to hold on to her waist, but not her shoulders because then she would be unable to steer and we could crash. This was a risk I didn’t really want to take on my second day in Indonesia, so I followed her advice and held on to her waist with a vice-grip-like rigidity.

“YOU ACT LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER BEEN ON A MOTORCYCLE,” Mella yelled to me when we were stopped at a red light and sat idling, amongst a noisy herd of other motorcyclists. “THAT’S BECAUSE I HAVEN’T!!” I yelled back, as the light turned green and the herd of motorcycles revved their engines in unison.

I have never ridden a mechanical bull, but as I sat on the back of that motorcycle that day, hurdling speed bumps and dipping in and out of crater-like potholes at 40 miles per hour, I had a feeling that the experience might be comparable.  

Eventually, we reached the art store, which was located across the Kali Code river in the eastern part of the city. Compared to big strip-mall-style art stores I was accustomed to in America, this art store was more of a small garage piled high with paints and paintbrushes. Once inside the store, Mella acted as a translator between myself and the three men running the store. After several minutes of confused glances, exaggerated hand motions, pointing, and a few sentences translated from English to Indonesian then from Indonesian to English, I followed Mella out of the tiny garage with two paintbrushes and an armful of gouache paints. At a small storefront next to the art store, we purchased several large sheets of paper which the shopkeeper tied into a large role held together with a long strip of plastic. Mella showed me how to stretch the piece of plastic over my head, so that the roll of paper could be worn on my back sling-style like a quiver of arrows. This way, your hands would be free and you wouldn’t have to increase your already high chance of falling off of the back of a motorcycle. This made me feel very hard-core, in a Katniss Everdeen fighting to the death in The Hunger Games kind of way.  

I used the paper, brushes, and gouache paints (which are similar to watercolors) that we purchased that day to create collages and illustrations within my sketchbook and on separate sheets of paper. This is what I did for several weeks, in addition to scouring Mella’s collection of art books in search of creative inspiration. Mella provided critique and insight and asked for my advice regarding the large paintings she was working on. Our conversations were always interesting and thought-provoking, and the studio environment was relaxed and enjoyable. Most days, Mella and I listened to soul music on a small speaker she kept on her big, paint-stained table.

Singing along to The Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross, Mella and I orbited the studio, painting, drawing, gluing, stitching, and sewing late into each evening. Sometime in mid-June, Mella asked me to help her brainstorm ways of manipulating “bark cloth” through folding and bending.

“Bark cloth” is a unique material made from palm tree bark which is beaten and spread into a thin, even layer of fabric-like material. Mella had used the material in a previous piece which examined the significance of the material’s history. The material is indigenous to Indonesia and had been used by native Indonesians on islands neighboring Java to create traditional clothing, which was worn during the time of Dutch occupation as a form of resistance against European power. The material’s incredible flexibility and durability augments its history.  

After purchasing several roles of bark cloth at Yogyakarta’s main marketplace, Mella and I began experimenting with ways of manipulating the material back at the studio. We spent about a week playing with possibilities—folding the bark cloth like origami, soaking it in water and allowing it to dry to form strange shapes in the sun, and threading thick string into its fibers to create fan-like, lattice patterns.

Ultimately, we decided to employ a combination of all of these techniques to create two wearable sculptures which would be exhibited in early July. The next weeks were spent soaking, folding, and stitching ten panels of bark cloth in anticipation for the exhibition.

While Mella focused on painting and sewing pieces of wax fabric and creating buckles and ties which would be used to assemble the bark cloth pieces into wearable garments, I sewed lattice patterns into the bark cloth panels.  

This process involved several steps, which had to be repeated with each panel of bark cloth. First, I soaked the bark cloth with water using a spigot sticking out from a wall in the garden in the middle of the studio building. Then, I spread the panel out on the grass in the garden and left it to dry under the hot sun for no more than 20 or so minutes. Once the bark cloth was warm and half-wet, I laid it out on a table in the studio and used hair pins to fold it into rows of 1-inch-deep accordion pleats. Then, I used thick string to sew a lattice pattern into the pleats, while also using my hands to spread the edges of the material so they would dry into fan-like projections. 

I spent the remainder of June and the beginning of July following these steps with occasional variations to create enough panels of stitched bark cloth to be used to create two wearable garments. Mella used her sewing machine to attach the bark cloth panels to pieces of fabric painted a deep aqua color and segments of straw baskets painted bright orange. This resulted in two wearable costumes—one intended for a larger, male model and the other for a smaller female model, both of which were friends of Mella’s who agreed to model the costumes at the exhibition.

To protect the craftsmanship and the stitches I had made in the bark cloth (which were prone to breaking due to the weight of the combined materials), Mella and I carefully wrapped the two costumes in layers of bubble wrap and transported them to the exhibition space in the backseat of a taxi.  

The exhibition took place in a large, open-air building jutting into a rice field in the more rural south-west region of the city. The costumes would be shown alongside wearable art pieces made by two other Indonesian artists. I felt sheer excitement as Mella and I helped the models into the costumes we had created and led them to the exhibition area. My excitement only increased as the exhibition room began to fill with people, some of which were strangers to me and others who were friends and fellow artists I had met and spent time with during my time in Yogyakarta.

As the models began to walk around the room to display the detail of the pieces, visitors stared wide-eyed at the costumes, chatted amongst themselves, and snapped pictures on phones and cameras. I began eagerly taking photos as well and, catching Mella’s eye from across the room, smiled. I was so incredibly proud of what we had created! This was a kind of pride I hadn’t ever felt before. It’s one thing to feel a sense of pride for something you create and keep to yourself, and it’s an entirely different thing to feel proud of something you create and then share with others. This kind of pride is tinged with excitement—it’s an adrenaline rush. I think this has a lot to do with the degree of vulnerability required to exhibit something you create or co-create. It’s throwing a part of yourself out in the world, and not knowing what will happen next. It was thrilling.  

The exhibition of the two sculptures I had the opportunity to co-create with Mella marked the end of my eight weeks in Indonesia. I spent the days following the exhibition cleaning up my studio space, completing some last-minute sketches, and re-exploring some of my favorite places in Yogyakarta.

As I packed my bags in anticipation for the 24 hours of flying required to make it back to the United States, I slipped a spare panel of bark cloth into the outside pocket of my suitcase. This way, friends and family back home could see a tangible, if small-scale, example of the unique material I had been using and what the final two sculptures had looked and felt like.  

Realizing that I would probably never see the sculptures in person again, the piece of bark cloth became a piece of nostalgia. To me, it was an artifact, a relic, and a trophy. As I boarded the first of three planes I would be taking to get back home, I couldn’t wait to show my own piece of Yogyakarta to my friends and family.      

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About Author

Maura Tangum is a studio art and English double major from Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently in Indonesia with support from a Dean Rusk Program grant.

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