#dewimeets: Sabine Bolk

I've been following Sabine and her work on instagram a while now and I am very excited to share her story in this blog article. Sabine is a batik activist, researcher and artist and based in the Netherlands. Have you heard about real and fake batik? Sabine will explain you what the difference is and how to distinguish between the two. She'll also talk about her journey with batik and the how the current covid-situation affects her work. Sounds interesting? I think so too!

Where does your interest in batik come from?

I think my earliest encounter with Batik is through my grandparents. My grandfather had a huge fascination with Indonesia, so I grew up with hearing stories of Indonesia, flipping through my grandmothers photo-albums and exploring their house which was filled with all kinds of objects from their travels. My grandmother always bought all kinds of handmade crafts and Batik was one of those things. They had mostly Batik paintings, but my grandmother also wore clothing she had made from Batik. 


I really connected with Batik much later. I studied at the Art-academy and their little room for “non-Western art” which I found a pity. I was working a lot with patterns and was looking for different ways of giving meaning to patterns. This is when Batik came back on my path. In 2009, two years after my graduation, was the first time I went to Java. I went to actually learn the technique of Batik, but life took a different path.


Sabine at the Batikworkshop KUB Srikandi, desa Jeruk on Java in 2009

What is your relationship to Indonesia?

In the Netherlands we already have a strong connection with Indonesia through our colonial history. Although it is very limited what we learn at school about it for example. My connection to Indonesia and my knowledge of the Dutch colonial history grew a lot these last years. It is very important to be aware of this complicated and painful past and I feel I still have much to learn.


I mostly feel connected to Java and my plans were to also go to Sumatra and Bali last year, but those plans have to wait. When I am on Java I definitely feel like an outsider and get reminded of that also constantly. But as soon as I am with Batikmakers, this disappears. It’s odd because in my travels these were the people I could often communicate the least with, through words that is. I always travelled with a friend of a friend of friends to help translate. But Batik I somehow always understood just fine, I always joke I speak Bahasa Batik.


I am now actually learning Bahasa Indonesia, I started a couple of times, but never find the time to keep at it. It is kinda frustrating to know this will only help me partly, because some of the Batikmakers I know speak Javanese. But most do use Bahasa Indonesia as a second language at least, so that keeps me motivated.


Sabine at the Batikworkshop KUB Srikandi, desa Jeruk on Java in 2016, photo by Jennifer Wanardi

How does a typical day of your work look like?

At the moment my work looks a lot different from a year ago. The pandemic really changed my life a lot. I don’t want to sound too depressing, because my work is absolutely awesome to be busy with. 


At the moment I am finishing research I have been working on these past 4 years. As part of that I have been a Research Associate at the Research Center of Material Culture (RCMC) since June 2019.


Normally I would do a lot of different things during a work-week, from going to symposiums, museums and exhibitions, to giving talks, workshops, writing articles or editing videos or spending time in archives, online-databases and depots.



I am now mostly stuck at home and luckily still got to go to some archives and depots when the Netherlands was opened up a little during the Summer months.


My workdays really depend on what is on my to-do-list. I try to focus on one thing per day or per week. For example if I have to write an article, I make sure that I finish any emails and other tasks in the days before, so I can fully focus on writing. Same with preparing a talk, workshop or exhibition.


I learned from my travels that I am most happy if I can fully focus and totally be committed to something. The last 4 years I was really focussed on research and now I feel like I want to be more busy with making again. This last year in between writing, I gave myself more time to work with my hands. I made a full size Batik, among other things.


I hope this year I can keep up this balance between research and making. For me they are very connected and both make me really happy. 

"I learned from my travels that I am most happy if I can fully focus and totally be committed to something"

Sabine at her work

How does covid affect you? Any advice you'd give to people in similar situations?

At first I was bummed out by all the events like talks and workshops that couldn’t take place. Most were postponed, but after several reschedules got cancelled.


So I couldn’t do much in the first months, but gave myself little things to keep busy with. Like making a stop-motion, pretending my house was a gallery and making little insta-stories on these art-pieces and looking for ways of sharing some of the cancelled events online. I think being creative in this time really helps. 


Also it was great to think of ways to stay connected.


Last year I was more connected with Indonesia than any year before. There were so many talks on Zoom and Instagram being held, it was great to finally be able to participate from abroad. Batik was really represented online in 2020.

"2020 really built a bridge, it made it even more easy to connect"

It was also great to organise myself online. Amazing how you can create things together without actually physically being in the same space. This is something I hope to continue in this year.


I think 2020 really built a bridge, it made it even more easy to connect. We had all these things before, like video-calls, but they were always seen as a less real way of interacting and now we know this is not true. Or at least this is how I experience it. Of course by now we are a little screen-tired, but I think for actual collaborations I am happy for this shift in thinking about being connected.


My step to finally learn Indonesian also was a great welcoming experience. The lessons were given online and although I still need to learn a long time I think before I can fully understand it, it was wonderful to be busy with this. Learning a new skill is always a good thing. And a lockdown is a perfect excuse to finally start.


Batik art in Sabine's garden in the Netherlands

Which projects are you currently working on?

I am working on my research project ‘Re-telling the history of the (Indo-)European influence on Javanese Batikbetween 1840-1850.

I am also doing research on Batik clothing for men, focussing on the Batik celana, in Dutch ‘Slaapbroek’. This research is part of the Batik program I put together with Guave do for the Tong Tong Fair (TTF). TTF is one of the biggest Pasar Malams of the Netherlands, their last edition had to be postponed, and with their foundation they also focus on more in-depth research on Indo-European and Indonesian history. We hope we can collaborated on the topic Batik either during the Fair or in other ways. 


I am working on a batik-exchange project in which through Batik making together with international Batikmakers and artists I try to re-tell the story of Batik Tiga Negeri. Last year I made a second piece for this project in one colour which is now with the very talented artist Addoley Dzegede in de USA for a second colour bath. After her it will go to Indonesia for the third and final colour. So we re-create a batik using the story about the origin of ‘Tiga Negeri’. 


I hope later this year to start up several projects which will be mostly about how to exchange Batik knowledge. Through my research I found there is a lot of data in the Netherlands, we have wonderful Batik collections, but also we have had many scholars and traders who wrote about Batik. Most of this data is still not digital or translated. I hope I can share more about this in 6 months or so, when I finish my Research Position at RCMC.


So many plans as always haha, most my projects take a long time and happen through out the years simultaneous. Pelan pelan ;)


Celebration of Hari Batik (Batik Day) in Pekalongan on 2 October 2019, Photo by Cornelius Pasattimur Fajar Dewa

What makes batik so special for you?

Mmm there are so many things which make it special. Maybe that it is traditionally made by women and that batikworkshops were also run by women. Of course this is now on many locations no longer the case, but I do feel mostly connected to the wanita bos. I also really like the creativity in especially North-coast batiks throughout history. And that it is still being made! Batik is not an easy skill to master and throughout history they tried to compete with Batik with all kinds of copies, but Batik always remained!

Do you have a favorite batik pattern or style?

Oehh so hard to choose right? Well I do prefer North-coast Batik over the Sogan coloured Kraton style Batik, mostly because they are more free in their design. I am a huge fan of Batik Lasem and love the local motif ‘Latohan’ which is an isen-isen based on a type of seaweed. I also really like all Lokcan variations. Every workshop or maker gives their own style to it. 

I am a big fan of ‘Beras wutah’ either the fine grains of rice or the big more dot like version of it. I think it is so great it is part of your brands collection!


It is hard to choose one favourite, there are so many interesting stories and so much history behind motifs. Every time I learn something new about patterns, I cherish them more.


"Every workshop or maker gives their own style to it"

Real vs. fake batik: Why is the debate important?


I think for everyone who has a strong connection to Batik and its makers, the real handmade batik is the only Batik.


My problem mostly is with brands who use printed textiles with batik patterns and sell them under the claim that they “support Batik” or that they celebrate “Indonesian heritage”. I think you can not support or celebrate anything if you sell fast fashion, which is what these printed textiles mostly are.


People mostly here (in the Netherlands) start the debate on cost, but in the world we live in now, we should only focus on what is right. You can not compare a machine- or silkscreen printed textile to a hand-stamped or hand-drawn and hand-dyed fabric

"I think you cannot support batik if you sell fast fashion"

The conditions in which a Batik is made often do need to improve, but the ‘Fake Batiks’ are definitely made in worse conditions.


By buying these ‘Fake Batiks’ you will not improve things for anyone, not for the factory-workers and definitely not for the Batikmakers. So in terms of cost, choose wisely were you invest your money in instead of thinking what is your cheapest option.


"By buying real batik you can be the proud owner of a unique piece."

Apart from this more harsh point of view, by buying Real batik you can also be the proud owner of a unique piece. To wear, to hang on your wall or use as a tablecloth, whatever you want. You will be able to give this Batik to a next generation since the quality is that good!


The debate, or education on this, is still very important, because Fast fashion is a huge problem and Batik is, although it is an official intangible UNESCO heritage, still in need of a lot of support. We basically do not give that support if we keep buying (or selling!) the wrong things. The debate is important to have, because the more consumers are aware of their power (and privilege), the sooner we will only have Batik and no longer have to discuss whether printed textiles can be called the same… 


At the Batik workshop KUB Srikandi, Ibu Ramini is showing schoolkids how to make Batik, in 2019

how can you distinguish between real and fake batik?


This is a question I get asked a lot and from photos it is often difficult, but with the actual textile it is more easy. The line hot wax makes has a different quality than a printed line, however this is often copied in these fake batik fabrics.


To spot if it is Batik Tulis vs. printed textiles is probably the easiest. A Batik Tulis is fully drawn by hand with hot wax. The pattern therefor will not repeat, maybe in the bigger figures, but little filling details will be definitely different. A way to spot this is to fold the fabric so you get two similar pattern next to each other. If they are exactly the same you have probably have a printed textile.


But it could still be made with Batik Cap. In this case the pattern that repeats will not be bigger than about 25 x 25 cm. And although Cap makers can often line their stamps perfectly, there will be little differences. 


"If the pattern are exactly the same, you have probably a printed textile"

There are more tips, but when shopping Batik, it mostly comes down to either trusting the seller or asking the right questions. So first is the lingo. In Indonesia you ask for either Batik Tulis, handwritten with a canting/waxpen, Batik Cap, made with a copper stamp called Cap, or a combination of the two Batik Kombinasi.


Nowadays Kombinasi could also be a combination of print with details filled in by hand, so it is not always the real deal. Batik Print is commonly used for the fake printed textiles. So if you ask for just Batik in Indonesia, you might be sold a printed textiles with Batik pattern.


For online it's always good to ask were the seller, or the brand got their fabrics from, even if they include pictures of Batikmakers on their pages. Often they only use the term Batik on their website or instagram, but if you ask most will let you know if is is real Batik Tulis, or Cap, or actually printed textiles. And if they don’t know the difference or do not reply, well, don’t buy there if you really want to support and own real Batik.


Batik Tulis in water ready to be dyed

What do you wish for the future? for yourself, batik and the world?

Of course I hope we can get this Covid pandemic behind us and that everyone worldwide will be safe from it.

I hope we can go towards a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle which hopefully will be on time to prevent further problems with climate change.


All these things are also very important for the future of Batik. From the cotton to the finished piece, Batik depends on so many elements that are influenced by Covid and climate change.

Also the Batikmakers would benefit a lot from more sustainable practices. It would be great if the Indonesian government would focus less on marketing Batik and more on the makers of it. It needs to become an interesting well paid important and safe job. I think still we care more for the finished Batiks than hands that made them.


And we need more young people who are willing to learn this, so that in the future we can still enjoy Batik :))!

Dancer Dwi performs Tari Batik in 2016

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