SEEKING THE SOUL IN CLAY © Duncan Graham 2006
It’s sticky, slimy and dirty, and at the first encounter, difficult to love. But in the hands of the creative artists of Malang in East Java, drab clay is moulded and fired into beauty worth beholding. Duncan Graham reports:
Mohammed Atim will probably pot on till his worn fingers no longer sense the potential hidden in the clay and waiting for release – when he knows the magic of transmutation has been lost.
Atim, who opened his business more than 25 years ago, was one of the first modern potters to start working in the Malang district of Dinoyo. That sounds impressive, but a quarter century is but a fleck in time in the history of Java. Clay was being worked close by in much the same way during the Majapahit Era, more than 700 years ago, and doubtless long before that.
Atim fires his pots in an open wood fire, as did his ancestors. This has bolstered his business against the fuel price jolts that have made products manufactured using fossil fuels so expensive. Sourcing forest timber is a problem, so he uses old pine packing cases and other waste woods. These tend to be light, full of resin and burn fast, making the process even trickier.
“When I began 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.”
Despite being an important thoroughfare for the East Java hill city, Jalan Mayjen Panjaitan where Atim has his shed is a crowded and busy street. It’s made even more cramped by shopkeepers using the narrow pavements as showcases. Or even as workshops.
Many find the sidewalks a handy place to paint, varnish and air-dry their creations – making a stroll hazardous for the clumsy. In other towns you have to watch for the pitfalls – in Dinoyo it’s the potfalls.
Cynics and malevolents might think the top-heavy pots are put outside to ambush passers-by on the principle that you break, you buy.
Should an accident occur you may have a bruised shin but your wallet won’t be lacerated from close encounters with fragile objects. The harga turis (tourist’s price) disease, which infects so many towns, has yet to flare in Dinoyo.
The prices are reasonable and open to bargaining. By Western standards, dirt-cheap. Visitors from outside the archipelago are rare – and so are rip-offs. Almost all customers are locals, or day-trippers from Surabaya.
Making ceramics is 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 but can be seen elsewhere in Malang factories where Chinese ceramics are made - have computer control systems. These take much of the guesswork out of temperature and time.
But that’s not the situation when using wood. For this you need qualities that can’t be measured. Is the fire too hot – or too cold? Temperature ranges are critical and mistakes made during the firing can mean flawed pots and fractures where there should be smooth surfaces. Selling crumbling ceramics is no way to win return custom.
Atim has been doing the job for so long he knows heat without using a thermometer. He can sense when the baking is complete. That’s experience, and all attempts to get him to describe the details failed – not through secrecy, but because time-tested instincts and feelings are hard to express.
He also knows what buyers want - without employing market researchers. Locals with spacious gardens, lobbies or hallways seek big bountiful and curvaceous feminine pots (Rp 60,000 or US$6.80) to make an entrance statement.
For those with smaller living quarters and less arrogance, multicoloured hanging lanterns sell for only Rp7, 000 (US 80 cents). Although the style is the same each pot has been painted differently.
To make a living Atim and his neighbours have to produce what the market wants, including practical items that are always in demand. Garden furniture is an evergreen.
When times are quiet most craftspeople like to experiment and produce something that expresses their personal tastes. That’s why it’s worth poking around a bit. Hiding behind the racks of best sellers and shrouded by a coat of dust may be something unique overlooked by purchasers with rigid notions about what’s good.
Potters like Wahyudi Wibowo (also known as Yudi), are always pushing the market with new designs. He’s a teacher of the ceramic arts and often displays original work by himself and students.
His colours tend to be more autumnal, closer to the soil than the sometimes-garish decorations of his neighbours’ ceramics. However when he sells out a line is often not repeated, so buyers get only one chance.
Next to Yudi’s shop Tjipto designs, makes and sells original and delicate metal work, including mirrors surrounded by floral designs priced from Rp 350,000 (US$ 37). Westerners who associate welding with heavy industry should watch artisans make filigree. In his cluttered back yard even the scrap looks lovely where flame has been tested on metal.
Moslem craftspeople are forbidden from depicting living creatures so are challenged to create abstracts. Despite this prohibition, frogs flourish in many designs, as do birds.
One couple who joined their lives together for better or worse last January commissioned terracotta discs from Pak Atim to remember the event. They probably – and rightly – recognised that while paper rots and crumbles, burns and fades, clay withstands.
Proof is everywhere. In the nearby town of Trowulan, once the centre of the Majapahit kingdom, is a museum full of relics of the era. Among the practical pots, bottles and bricks are clay figurines of everyday life. Like tiny toys or models, they may have been fashioned in fun to pass the time on a dull day.
These little pinch-pots of housing and people are the only remaining records that show the designs of buildings and the ethnic groups which once lived and worked in central East Java.
It’s not just diamonds that are forever.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2006)