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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Going potty about Lombok

In the international aid business not all projects are worth the money and effort.

Like rockets some are launched in a great show of publicity but never reach the predicted heights. They burn out prematurely, dampened by confrontations with reality in the hard school of social engineering.

Others fizzle out in culture conflicts; messages are misread, expectations vanish and promises turn to ash in the crucible of corruption.

It might have been that way 20 years ago in Lombok when a New Zealand aid program set about reforming the traditional crafts of the Sasak potters, but this project seems to have been successful beyond hope.

“At first many villagers feared this was an exercise in Christianisation,” said Rohmiati, the manager of the Lombok Pottery Centre. (Lombok, the island adjacent to Bali, is mainly Muslim.)

“There was also some resentment because outsiders were getting involved. However after almost a year the locals slowly started accepting the ideas and applying changes.

“The potters were helped with designs, manufacture and marketing. An administration center was set up. The pottery became famous overseas and the women and their families have got the benefits of better health and sanitation.

“Just look at their houses. There’s the proof. They used to use the river for ablutions. Now they have toilets. They used to have bamboo walls, dirt floors and thatch roofs. Not now. They’ve spent their profits to better their lives. ”

The entrance to Banyumulek, 20 minutes south of Mataram, looks more like a drive into a resort with its avenue of pots. The houses are brick and tile or iron. The village has an aura of basic prosperity – not flash, just comfortable.

Some display their craft in little shops, seeking retail sale. Others have purpose-built workshops and storerooms behind their homes ready to supply big orders.

Yet the “glory days”, as Rohmiati calls the 1990s, have gone. Then up to 100 containers of pots were leaving Lombok for overseas every year. Now they’ll be lucky to fill one container in four months, and there are no busses of culture tourists keen to fill their backpacks with the rugged, russet-hued earthenware.

Rohmiati blames the church burnings during the 2000 religious riots – or, as some claim, political feuds using religion to stoke hatred – for the downturn in visitors. She said the global economic slump had caused the loss of overseas markets.

Or maybe the business just needs to be refreshed after two decades of selling the same things, with marketing given a boost. Perhaps other countries have pinched the style and are undercutting prices. The staff say more trade research is required.

Certainly the huggable pots are rich and beautiful, all hand made and fired in the open using rice straw and coconut husks. The designs, like the tones, are subtle. The grey clay is mined locally. Although a few concessions to modernity have been made, the basic tools and techniques being used now by 214 craftswomen in three villages are much like those centuries ago.

How long? No one knows for sure. One version has the skills being brought from Central Java 500 years ago when the Majapahit kingdom began to disintegrate and the Hindus moved east.

Another credits Sunan Prapen who brought Islam to the island, and may have included pottery in his basket of skills. This being Indonesia, there’s also a myth of the goddess Dewi Anjani being involved.

Potting is still female work, and this made it an attractive project for NZ aid, where empowering women, particularly the poor and single mums, has long been a national goal. Of the 20 staff at the center only five are men, employed to do the heavy lifting and packing, for some fat-bellied pots stand up to a meter.

The first adviser was NZ artist and craft expert Jean McKinnon who stayed with the project for more than three years. The overseas aid has finished and the local women now own the business.

The main office and showroom in Mataram includes a large packing shed and warehouse. Here thousands of glistening, multi-colored pots rest on racks ready for export should the orders start flowing again.

Originally the pots were purely functional, made as kitchen and cookware and hawked from door to door. Now most are decorative and have been embellished with designs making them fit to feature in Western lounges and gardens.

The women are no longer artisans, but artists.

The clay is mixed with fine river sand and the pots are built using rolls of the damp mixture, coiling the material by hand. The only tools are bamboo sticks, coconut husks, wire and sometimes kick-wheels.

Although some craftswomen have bought electric wheels these have not been successful; the power supply is too limited and unreliable. Unlike Western potteries there are no thermometers or other technology used to tell when the pot is too dry or too wet, ready to fire or cool. The potters just know, such are their skills.

For some designs tamarind seeds are crushed and soaked. The mix is sprayed on the pots to create a patterned effect. The artefacts are then dried in the sun for about half a day.

It’s the sort of work that fits in with domestic duties. When the kids are at school a few hours potting in the backyard doesn’t just fill time – it also makes money.

The health of the women working the clay seems to be unaffected, but there are concerns about inhaling smoke and ash from the firing.

“They continue to fire the pots close to the houses and we are getting reports of chest infections,” said Rohmiati’s colleague Ni Kitut Adi Widyati who has been with the project since its inception.

“We think they should move the firing to an open area far away, but they’re reluctant.

“We are grateful to the NZ government because it looked after our home industries and helped make them successful. Now we need to get fresh designs and get back into the international market.

“We’re still selling to Italy and the US but have to expand.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 January 2010)

(Pic caption: Handle with care: Rohmiati (left) and Ni Kitut Adi Widyati.)


1 comment:

愛情 said...

真正仁慈的人,會忘記他們做過的善行,他們全心投入現在的工作,過去的事已被遺忘。 ..................................................