POTTERING DOWN POT LANE © Duncan Graham 2005
If you visit the Tourist Information Centre in Malang asking about ceramics you’ll be directed to a factory producing Chinese-style pots splashed with blue calligraphy. There’s an airy showroom common with such formal attractions and a guided tour of the big kilns.
But if you really want to find rugged and individualistic Javanese pots expressing local heritage, you need to go elsewhere. Duncan Graham takes Jakarta Kini readers to a place you won’t find in the tour guides.
Despite being an important thoroughfare for the East Java hill city, Jalan Mayjen Panjaitan (but better known as Dinoyo), is a crowded and busy street. It’s made even more cramped by shopkeepers displaying their wares on the narrow pavements. Or even using them as workshops.
Among the tradesfolk are potters who find sidewalks a handy place to paint, varnish and sun dry their work. You won’t read the “Beautiful to behold, but break it and sold” warnings favored by mall boutiques which load thin glass shelves with fragile filigree and hope for a clumsy customer - but it would be wise not to bump a roadside urn as you jump the puddles.
Should such an accident occur you may have a sore leg but you’re not likely to be fiscally crippled by the mishap. For among the many joys of this street of ceramics and other crafts is one that’s particularly pleasing: The harga bule (foreigner’s price) disease which infects so many tourist traps has yet to corrupt commerce in Dinoyo.
The prices listed are the ones the locals pay – and outlets are open to bargaining. Craftspeople here make their living from selling to neighbors and townsfolk. Caucasians and other visitors from outside the archipelago are rare – and so are rip-offs.
One of the first to start working in Dinoyo was Mohammed Atim who opened his business more than 25 years ago. He still fires his pots in an open wood fire, so hasn’t suffered from the fuel price hikes which have made products manufactured using fossil fuels so expensive.
“When I began here there was no competition,” he said. “Now there are shops everywhere. The clay around here is difficult to work and can produce pots which break easily, so we use clay from Wendit on the outskirts of Malang.”
Making ceramics is an ancient art believed to have originated in China. In most modern factories the pots are roasted in giant gas-fired or electric-powered kilns. The latest models - which you won’t find in Dinoyo - have computer controls taking much of the guesswork out of temperature and time.
But that’s not the situation when using wood. For this you need the eye of experience, the touchy-feely ability to add more fuel or dampen the embers, and the wisdom to know when to stop. Pots that are under-done or over-done are like cakes that suffer similar oven experiences – they’re unsaleable.
Pak Atim has been doing the job for so long he knows what buyers want. Locals fancy big brash and heavily lacquered pots (Rp 60,000 or US$6) large enough for a couple of koi and their kiddies to swim in comfort. Fancy this mounted on a ceramic stand? Dig deep for Rp 35,000 or US$3.50.
If your mood is for things miniscule to match your apartment, try a hanging lantern for only Rp7,000. For this loose change you have a selection of colors.
Like all potters Pak Atim has to produce the standards, including functional items that walk off the shelves whatever the season. Like the fancy terracotta ridge caps that Javanese love to put on their roofs, and which look like a 15th century warrior’s helmet.
You may see these everywhere in Indonesia, but that doesn’t make them any less a work of art which would give your retirement cottage in England or New England a tropical touch.
Garden furniture is another popular product and frogs the clichéd motif. But don’t be disdainful; ceramic amphibians may be passé but they don’t croak through the night and leave slime on the tiles.
When times are quiet most craftspeople like to experiment and produce something that expresses their personal tastes. That’s why it’s worth asking if you can poke around a bit. Hiding behind the racks of best sellers and shrouded by a coat of dust may be something unique overlooked by purchasers with set ideas about what’s good.
One or two craftsmen, like Pak Wahyudi Wibowo (also known as Yudi), have the courage to confront the market with their own ideas. He teaches ceramics and has developed a lovely line of russet dishes and other earthy kitchenware.
You may plan to use these at your next celebrity dinner, but that ambition will be abandoned once you unpack the pots at home and see the rich, deep tones warming in the sunlight. These crafts are just too refined to put into the sink along with bourgeois plates stamped out in some ceramic sweatshop overseas.
Likewise with the long-necked swan-shaped pieces that are sold as lamp stands. Pernickety purchasers might think stuffing in plastic cables and mounting switches an abuse of art and that these vases should stand alone as a lovely works in their own right.
Next to Pak Yudi’s shop Pak Tjipto tempts passers-by with original and delicate metal work, including mirrors priced at Rp 350,000 (US$ 35). In his cluttered back yard lurk the results of testing flame on metal to produce floral flourishes.
As many Dinoyo craftsmen are Moslem they shy from depicting living creatures and instead challenge themselves and buyers with abstract designs. Some think this prohibition cramps creativity, but in fact it ignites ingenuity.
So here’s a dimpled pot, with every groove a detective’s delight of fingerprints; there’s a swirling mass looking a little celestial, though perhaps too geometric.
Clearly aiming for the Chinese market many potters offer lines of tall feminine vases wrapped by an embracing (or strangling) vine. The buyer supplies the imagery.
Don’t like what you see? Well offer some suggestions, make a sketch and wait till the next firing. Try doing that at the PT Multinational China Factory on Industrial Estate No 16.
One couple due to join their lives together for better or worse in January have commissioned terracotta discs from Pak Atim to remember the event. They rightly believe that cards crumble and photos fade but clay, once tested by the furnace, endures.
With care and good maintenance their love could last as long as this remarkably durable medium. Clay was being worked in much the same way in this very area during the Majapahit Era, 700 years ago.
The past lives on in Dinoyo, Malang.
(First published in Jakarta Kini, January 2006)