Ancient Art or Fashion Forward? Both, Says a Top Batik Designer

Josephine Komara was depressed. She had recently divorced. She had moved into a small house. Her business supplying fabric for lampshades was lucrative but unfulfilling. Ms. Komara sipped her wine and smoked a cigarette. She sank to the floor, dipping her hands into two wooden chests filled with antique Indonesian textiles.

In one chest, Ms. Komara recently recalled, were batik designs from the island of Java, in the other elaborate weavings from Indonesia’s outer islands. She swallowed more wine, inhaled clove-scented smoke from an Indonesian cigarette — and considered how to enrich the heritage of a nation of more than 17,000 islands.

Since that melancholic night nearly four decades ago, Ms. Komara has refashioned an ancient art by entwining disparate textile traditions with an aesthetic all her own to create a modern Indonesian silhouette. Her batik and other designs for her fashion house, BINhouse, have transformed a cultural expression that was intricate and lovely but so locked in tradition that it bordered on staid.

Ms. Komara, known by her nickname Obin, no longer depends on lampshades for a living as BINhouse has become a global force in spreading batik’s beauty.

“I don’t love Indonesia. I am in love with Indonesia,” Ms. Komara said, lingering on the “in” with the throaty fervor of a soap opera actor. “To me, the Indonesian cloth we make is alive, it’s speaking, it’s expressing itself about this land, this beautiful land, which has a certain pulse and aroma that does not exist anywhere else.”

Ms. Komara, 67, speaks as an unabashed Indonesia booster, determined to raise the profile of the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the biggest archipelagic country on the planet.

Superlatives aside, Ms. Komara’s homeland treads with a light international imprint, despite its more than 275 million people. The country boasts no globally iconic brands. If any part of Indonesia is well known overseas, it is Bali, a Hindu holiday isle, as if Hawaii were to stand in for the entire United States.

While a few words originating from this part of Southeast Asia have taken root in English — rice “paddy,” “gecko” and to run “amok” — “batik” is rare in that it is both a local word and also an expression of Indigenous culture.

In one form of batik-making popular on Java, artisans apply wax to fabric with pointillist precision, dripping the dye-resistant liquid from a narrow copper vessel. The patterns they create abound with nature’s exuberance: intricate blooms, mythical beasts and tropical foliage.

Some of batik’s greatest promoters, as far back as the mid-19th century, were female entrepreneurs. Women tended to dominate the wax-dripping process, too.

In 2009, UNESCO designated Indonesian batik an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” That recognition is meant to preserve a nation’s cultural legacy, but it can also calcify traditions. And when Ms. Komara turned her attention to batik, it was, despite being woven into Indonesian society, in danger of just that.

The boxy cuts of batik shirts worn by civil servants might have conveniently camouflaged deskbound physiques, but they evoked the fashion of a bygone generation. Much of the cotton used for batik wasn’t grown in Indonesia, blunting the authenticity of the art form. Also constraining were customs that held that certain patterns should be worn only by a privileged few. For instance, a dagger-like diagonal and the solitary wing of a mythical bird were reserved for royals.

Ms. Komara hewed to no such taboos.

Along with a few other Indonesian designers, Ms. Komara refashioned the art form without erasing its Indigenous character, said Thomas Murray, a researcher and art dealer who is a main author of the book “Textiles of Indonesia.” “It’s a cross-cultural, cross-time pollination that is exciting.”

Ms. Komara is ethnically Chinese, part of a minority group that, among many other businesses, designed and produced batik. Chinese Indonesians have suffered from waves of persecution in Indonesia, including murderous paroxysms in the 1960s and 1990s. Many have left the country.

Ms. Komara’s father worked for a travel agency, and he moved his family to Hong Kong when she was 4. She attended Catholic school, but the discipline of the Maryknoll sisters disagreed with her. They called her “impertinent” for questioning how the world could be created in less than seven days, she said.

By her preteen years, Ms. Komara said, she had left school and was roaming the alleys of Hong Kong, with their topless bars luring sailors and congee burbling in diners. She ate at Jimmy’s Kitchen, a European-ish institution with an emphasis on the -ish, and listened to blind men coax nostalgia from the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument.

“I was gallivanting,” she said. “I took in all the sights and smells.”

When Ms. Komara was 12, her father died. The family moved back to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. She gallivanted there, too, particularly in Chinatown, with its warren of antique shops. The occasional violence directed at Chinese Indonesians, who were viewed as monopolizing economic interests, did not frighten her, she said.

Her mother was born the daughter of a Methodist schoolmaster but was orphaned and taken in by a Muslim man who prayed five times a day. When riots threatened as Ms. Komara was growing up, her mother would cook big pots of food as a peace offering.

Indonesia, perched on the so-called ring of fire where tectonic plates collide, has other fault lines too.

“We’re in the land of natural disasters: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, you name it, we’ve got it,” Ms. Komara said. “But we’re also a land of diversity that no single person can understand because you drive a car one hour and people are already speaking another dialect, eating another sauce. You enjoy and absorb.”

Ms. Komara was married to an archaeologist and anthropologist, who helped turn her textile collection into an academic interest and a professional one.

Batik, she learned, was being produced in the 13th century, when the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire ruled an oceanic kingdom from Java, dispatching boats as far away as Madagascar. She collected textiles from across the archipelago and delighted in the rainforest bounty that produced natural dyes.

She befriended old textile makers who worried about the longevity of their craft. She now employs hundreds of artisans for BINhouse, including weavers, batik makers, seamsters and fiber workers.

Some of the finest fabrics BINhouse sells, including batik applied to silk, take more than a year to make by hand and cost thousands of dollars. Traditionally, such handwoven cloth would be part of a woman’s dowry. These textiles should not be cut up, Ms. Komara said, any more than a live body should be dissected. They can be used as decorative wall hangings, shawls or sarongs, which are made from a single piece of cloth.

Ms. Komara’s designs for BINhouse come from disparate inspirations: the imprint a wave leaves on a beach or the halo of light from a streetlamp viewed during one of Jakarta’s many traffic jams. Her palette is tropical.

“As an art historian, I see people who don’t like change at all, but I think we need more people like Obin who understand that textiles are a living tradition,” said Sandra Sardjono, a textile historian who founded the Tracing Patterns Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., to research traditional textile practices.

For half a century, Ms. Komara said, she has been designing and redesigning the kebaya, a fitted blouse worn with a sarong in parts of Southeast Asia. The figure-grazing outfit, in some ways, embodies the syncretic form of Islam that developed in Indonesia, in which an Arabian faith brought by traders blended with animist, Hindu, Buddhist and other influences. For Indonesia’s national carrier, Garuda Indonesia, Ms. Komara created a kebaya uniform for flight attendants.

“It’s the sexiest and most sensual clothing,” Ms. Komara said.

More than 85 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, and in recent years women have begun to embrace conservative dress and the head scarf, called the jilbab in Indonesia. Ms. Komara has expanded her collection to include the current preference for loosefitting tunics and head coverings.

“Tradition is the way we are, and modern is the way we think,” she said. “Every cloth tells a living story.”