Interpreting Batiks

We are looking forward to Waxed: Batiks from Java, which will highlight the DMA’s fabulous collection of Javanese batik textiles later this fall. These works will continue the thread (pun absolutely intended!) of displaying textiles on Level 3; previously, Add to, Take Away: Artistry and Innovation in African Textiles explored textiles across Africa.

Batik is a technique of textile decoration that involves applying wax to a fabric by hand with a canting (wax pen) or a stamp. The fabric is then dyed, but the wax resists dying and creates pattern and decoration in the negative. Although the earliest and most simple batiks involved applying only dots of wax, the process has evolved to yield incredibly detailed and complex designs.

Batik tools, like these wax pens, will also be on display in Waxed.  

Batik tools, like these wax pens, will also be on display in Waxed.

Making a batik requires serious creativity, skill, and time. It took several months to complete a design like this cloud motif. If you look closely, you will notice that each cloud form includes six concentric outlines that shift in tone from a deep blue (the innermost line) to white (the outermost line). In order to achieve the variations in color, the cloth had to be dyed and waxed six separate times.

Wraparound skirt, (kain panjang) [pointed-ends cloud motif (megamenlang), Indonesia: Java, c. 1910, Cotton, commercial dye (?), Textile Purchase Fund, 1991.58

Wraparound skirt (kain panjang) [pointed-ends cloud motif (megamenlang)], Indonesia, Java, c. 1910, cotton and commercial dye (?), Dallas Museum of Art, Textile Purchase Fund, 1991.58

The job of “interpreting” textiles—or presenting them to the public in a way that facilitates understanding, piques interest, invokes appreciation, or inspires curiosity (among other things)—is a unique one. Because textiles are everywhere in our day-to-day lives, from mattresses, to clothes, to carpet and upholstery, it becomes necessary to very clearly convey what makes certain textiles so special. For our Inca exhibition last year, we collaborated with University of North Texas professor Lesli Robertson and the students in her class “Topics in Fiber: Community, Culture, and Art.” They created samples of textiles that reflected the very specific weaving techniques of textiles in the exhibition. We discussed the project in this blog post. These samples were such a success in the exhibition that we wanted to collaborate with our UNT colleagues once again for Waxed.

This time, we will work not only with Lesli and two of her recently graduated students but also with Amie Adelman, UNT professor of fibers, and one of her fall classes. The students will collaborate with DMA staff to design and develop an educational display that presents the steps required to produce complex batik designs. Together, we will further explore batik production in 19th- and 20th-century Java, including specific techniques, tools, colorants, and even wax “recipes.” The students will also have opportunities to visit the Museum’s textile storage and view some of the batiks up close, before they are installed in the galleries. By the fall, the students will produce eight to ten batik samples, each illustrating a different step in the process. By breaking down each individual step, our goal is for visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the extensive time, creativity, and planning involved in producing batik. Visitors will be able to learn from looking at these samples, and also from feeling them and touching the wax applied to the fabric.

Sketch of preliminary ideas for educational display

Sketch of preliminary ideas for educational display

We look forward to working with our friends and colleagues at UNT this summer, and we cannot wait to see what they come up with! Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes pics of this exciting collaboration!

Andrea Severin Goins is the Head of Interpretation at the DMA.


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