Bamboo bender hits the highway
The bamboo bends but does not break.
Zen Buddhists promote the ancient proverb because the image is rooted to a familiar sight in the tropics during heavy weather.
The perennial evergreen grass springs upright once the storms have passed. Which is encouraging for those confronting crises and who like metaphors, though not for Malang artist Chamim Marka.
He’s the sort of guy who thrives on clambering over self-grown thickets because success means gainsaying sceptics and naysayers.
Not that he does so in a Donald Trump cocksure way. Bering a Javanese with a strong sense of politeness laced with mysticism he doesn’t bluster, brag or dismiss. He just contemplates – then does.
How about working a piece of wood seamlessly so one piece fits into another? Here’s the challenge: Make a fist-sized object like a carved nut with all sides showing symmetrical patterns.
Easy peasy – though not if it has to be carved inside a piece of coarse timber that looks as though it has been disembowelled by termites.
Graduate upwards to weird contraptions where the hooks and eyes are not separate attachments fitted together at some later date but created as the wood was carved. Difficult? Indeed. Impossible? Clearly not, because Marka’s art withstands the sharpest scrutiny.
Search for the glue line and it’s not there. It’s almost a standard feature of modern handmade furniture where the backboard and sides of a sofa have been carved separately, whacked together with heavy-duty adhesives and the lot then saturated in black lacquer to hide the flaws.
“I like testing myself with difficulties,” Marka said in a workshop haunted by serpentine shapes and curious contraptions that look as though they must have some practical application
Such assumptions come not from the artist’s vision but the viewer’s expectation. Levers and legs, nodding shapes that hint of skeletal remains; there must be purpose. No. There must not, other than to interpret as you will.
Till late last century Marka was working with timbers imported from Kalimantan. As supplies shortened his concerns for the environment lengthened. In 1998 Marka decided to work exclusively in bamboo – a commonplace multi-purpose plant and one of the hardiest.
There were just a few knobbly points to overcome. He’d been making wooden bicycles, which is tricky. However there were timbers bent by nature and readymade to dovetail with the artist’s imagination.
But a bamboo bike? They exist in Ghana though usually only for the four straight pieces of the frame; the other parts are made from conventional materials.
Bamboo is light but strong and widely used as scaffolding on high-rise constructions in Indonesia. It’s also far cheaper than aluminum and carbon fibre, the standards for high-end bikes.
Marka wanted to make the whole bike of bamboo, apart from the wheel rims and tyres. Mudguards, forks, pedals and handlebars had to be bamboo – though cow horns are often added. Now that’s a test and a half to bemuse the best and brightest.
Though not Marka who solved the problem. The proof is in his workshop where seven bamboo bicycles await buyers at prices upwards from Rp 35 million (US$2,700).
Several have already gone to Europe, Japan, Australia and the US, said his son Jouhan Jauhari who studied at Yogyakarta’s prestigious Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Arts Institute) and makes figurines for the US comic market.
“Dad’s self-taught,” he said. “His grandfather was also a carver. We believe his skills have been passed down over the ages from the men who carved the temples during the Majapahit period (late 13th century till early 16th).”
And to prove it Marka has also built a Gapura Bentar (split gate) entrance to local government offices in Karangploso. In this suburb 93 artists belong to a collective so the new building also has a splendid pendopo (open sided meeting hall) behind the gate.
Although made of concrete blocks instead of quarried stone, the gate still follows the principles of East Java temple design. Marka has also won several public art commissions to build statues of famous figures from East Java’s classical history.
But there were no blueprints for his new venture. Marka said he tried bending bamboo over steam and flame though without success. Instead he resorted to forcing the bamboo to grow in certain shapes to suit his designs.
How he did this remains a trade secret, but presumably the plant has to follow a hardwood or steel mould. A friend has a small bamboo forest some distance from the workshop where experiments are conducted.
Fortunately bamboo is one of the world’s fastest developing plants with some varieties recorded as leaping up to a meter a day. Yet Marka still reckons it takes about a year to get all the right curves to build a bike.
By now readers may have concluded that his objets d’art are fun pieces which might find a niche in an avant garde studio, but are otherwise impractical. Wrong again. Marka reckons he’s covered 4,500 kilometers bambooing around East Java in the past six years.
The reasons he’s not spanned more territory aren’t difficult to find. The hard saddle could be used by intelligence authorities to extract confessions from close-lipped suspects, while the fat tyres attract nails.
The bikes also draw stares and inquiries which require halts and another coffee. If Marka was pedalling through Europe or the US he’d probably make sales as well as miles. But in East Java he’s just another oddball in a creative rural society where quirky characters abound – and are accepted.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 October 2016)