The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, October 06, 2005


© Duncan Graham 2005

About 15 years ago Western Australian textile artist Megan Kirwan-Ward thought it was time she refined, updated and formalised her skills. She already had a degree in English literature, but wanted qualifications in art.

By chance Elsa King, her lecturer at Perth’s Edith Cowan University was developing professional relationships with batik artists in Yogya. She invited Kirwan-Ward to visit Indonesia and explore the creativity of local women.

It didn’t take her long to appreciate the great depth and range of batik designs that vary from district to district. She was particularly surprised to find traditional Indonesian handicrafts had resisted the invasion of artificial fibres and mass production techniques despite enormous pressures to cut costs and speed manufacture.

“One day we set off in a jeep to visit a remote village in East Java,” said Kirwan-Ward in her Fremantle gallery. “We were supposed to get there in a couple of hours but we didn’t arrive till after nightfall.

“The village head greeted us with great hospitality. Then we walked down through the forest to a river and another house where a most beautiful woman was working on batik. There was no electricity. She was using candles that illuminated her every movement.

“These were movements of grace and beauty, handed down through generations of artists performing these traditional actions. Although I’ve forgotten the village name I have an enduring memory of the event. It was a stunning and extraordinary scene I will never forget.”

The Australian was stitched into Indonesia, but it took another ten years before she could return and expand her experiences.

For the next decade she researched Indonesian textile art and become fascinated by the Dutch influence on traditional embroidery techniques in West Sumatra.

Her studies led to an Asialink fellowship organised out of Melbourne University and supported by the philanthropic Myer Foundation. She then headed for Padang with a sewing machine and some vague plans about designing clothes and furnishings.

Friends with a surf shop offered Kirwan-Ward a room where she set up her machine and started wandering the markets for materials and dyes.

Now Padang, Sumatra’s major west coast seaport, is not Kuta – so a middle-aged bule asking about traditional arts attracted interest. Soon local women were swapping their knowledge and skills. A collective was formed.

The planned three-month stay wasn’t enough for Kirwan-Ward to absorb everything and develop her ideas. She renewed her visa and with her new friends and their families built a workshop on the outskirts of Padang.

The collective now produces a wide range of textiles which are taken to Australia, exhibited and sold under the name Passion Prints. They include quilts, cushions, dolls, scarves, bed linen and clothing. The materials used are silk, silk organza, cotton, brocade and velvet. All have been hand-dyed and stitched.

Many look more like three-dimensional sculptures than works of fabric. These are not batik. Most are practical and decorative. Apart from blue, most colors are earthy and reminiscent of the Australian landscape.

“Islamic art prohibits the depiction of living things so many themes are abstract,” she said. “I’ve been attracted to many of these designs but I’m also influenced by natural forms from the land and sea, particularly the reef ecologies of Western Australia and West Sumatra, for both front the Indian Ocean.

“My work always has an organic feel. The first works I brought back to Australia were so well received that the collective is now working full time.

“It’s difficult to source good dyes in Indonesia so I have to take materials to Padang.

“Not all the women were skilled at sewing so there’s been a lot of learning. It’s also been empowering because some women have now become breadwinners and their work is recognised as having value.

“Quality control is critical. I’ve explained that any work that isn’t perfect won’t sell in Australia. I got a reputation for being a very fussy woman.

“This message is now so well understood that I’ve been criticised by collective members for not presenting stich work up to their standards. These are Minangkabau women in a matriarchal and matrilineal society. They are very smart.”

Kirwan-Ward has learned Indonesian to communicate with members of the collective. She stressed that although the project – which has been backed by the Western Australian government - is successful it has been a critical learning experience for herself and her Indonesian colleagues.

“I’ve been a blundering stranger in a strange land,” she said on the eve of returning to Padang to help organise more textiles for exhibitions in Indonesia and India. She had just come from a showing in Melbourne supported by the Australia-Indonesia Institute.

“I recognise my influence can be positive and negative. I’m mindful that because the cultures are so different I’m often unaware of the impact of many things I do. I’m in someone else’s landscape so I must abide by their rules.

“This is still a niche product. But what’s happening here is real connection between ordinary people who are neighbours. These relationships are productive and meaningful and so important.

“If it develops we can create exchange programs so more Australian textile artists can travel to Indonesia and experience the richness or archipelago art.”

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(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 October 05)

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