A new generation of makers is turning the Indonesian capital into a home for carefully crafted goods inspired by tradition.
By Sophie Woodrooffe
Photo by Erica Knecht
I’m strolling down the middle of Jalan Sudirman, one of the busiest roads in Jakarta, but today I’m not worried about traffic. In fact, the only vehicles crossing my path are antique bikes from a local cycling club. In the distance, a cook attends to a bubbling wok on his pushcart while neat stacks of tempe goreng (fried tempeh) cool beside him. Closer by, two street performers operate ondel ondel, giant puppets said to ward off evil spirits, and a group of young boys slows down to watch. I slow down, too. The spectacle is hard to resist, and I won’t have a chance to stand in this spot for another seven days.
Jakarta’s weekly Car Free Day was launched in 2007. Since then, every Sunday morning, sections of Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin, two of Jakarta’s main arteries, are closed to traffic, and roughly 100,000 residents pour into the streets to soak up a few tranquil hours of pedestrian freedom. The shutdown is no small feat in this metropolis of 10 million – imagine New York City closing Fifth Avenue – but it’s an example of a special brand of creativity flourishing in this rapidly modernizing city.
As the mid-morning heat intensifies, I head south on Sudirman and back toward my hotel, Fairmont Jakarta, for another taste of tranquility. The newest five-star hotel in the Indonesian capital, the streamlined concrete tower stands unobstructed in the affluent Senayan neighborhood, flanked by the Senayan National Golf Club. Looking out toward the skyscrapers of the city’s central business district, this new building seems worlds apart from the city rush.
Its exterior matches the elegant simplicity within, overseen by Japanese design firm Kajima. Throughout the hotel, from headboards to throw pillows, subtle decorative touches stand in contrast to what’s typically considered the symbol of Indonesian aesthetic, the florid patterns of batik textiles. But as I soon discover, even batik is ready for reinterpretation.
Chitra Subiyakto, co-founder of the fashion line Sejauh Mata Memandang (“as far as the eye can see”), is happy to divest me of my batik bias. I first encounter her textiles in Harper’s Bazaar, then meet her in person at Dia.lo.gue Artspace, located near the hotel in the trendy Kemang district.
Dia.lo.gue cleverly translates to “he/she, you and me” in the local Betawi language, and indeed the exhibition space’s goal is to foster communication between people about art and design. Seated in the back, looking out at a reflecting pool in the zen-like courtyard, Subiyakto and I dive into a conversation about the past and future of textiles in Indonesia.
The motifs typical of batik – repeating patterns of isosceles triangles, birds and flowers – are complex and lace-like. Subiyakto’s knowledge of these traditional designs is prodigious, but she keeps today’s lesson simple: “The young generation still thinks that batik is a pattern,” she says. “But it’s actually the name of the technique and therefore open to interpretation.”
By way of illustration, she points to her kebaya (the blouse worn over a sarong), from her own “Noodle Bowl” collection. It is stamped with little roosters and totally devoid of the usual prismatic patterning. Instead of being worn the ordinary way, cinched at the waist, the silken fabric cascades open and free over her delicate frame. Working within the established method but not limiting herself to its conventional motifs, she explains, gives her the freedom to experiment.
In 2009, Fauzi Bowo, then-governor of Jakarta (who was also behind Car Free Day), issued an appeal to Jakartans to wear batik as a means of fostering cultural pride. From there Batik Fridays became Indonesia’s answer to “wear your jeans to work day.” Since then the fabric has actually become a popular choice for everyday wear as opposed to a strictly ceremonial garment.
For Subiyakto the revival has become something of a mission. “I wanted to inspire the young generation,” she says. She’s talking about her patterns, but she’s touching the whole movement of Jakarta’s modern artisans – outward looking, brought up on social media, attempting to navigate their customs while toying with tradition.
Jakarta’s youth-driven, modern aesthetic is difficult to pin down, but its ambassadors are getting easier to find. I first meet Ayu Larasati while browsing her mugs and dinnerware at one of Dia.lo.gue’s weekend pop-up markets. Back at her studio in the quiet suburb of Bekasi, Larasati tells me she moved back to Jakarta last year after spending a decade in Toronto, Canada. While she had always longed to return, she reveals that she couldn’t have made her living as a ceramic artist in Jakarta until now.
“Growing up, there was more pressure to do something more practical, where you could make money,” she says. Now, she tells me, maker-spaces such as Indoestri (which dubs itself a “melting pot of inspirational studio and well-equipped shop”) in West Jakarta hold workshops encouraging crafts enthusiasts and, increasingly, entrepreneurs to manufacture their own designs. Curated markets, from the one at Dia.lo.gue to the hipster haven Pasar Santa, are also expanding. (“There are so many now, it’s almost overwhelming!” Larasati exclaims.) But these markets aren’t simply helping artisans sell their wares – they are encouraging them to break the rules and evolve their craft.
“When you say Indonesian ceramics, you would think of the low fire,” says Larasati, referring to the traditional method of “cooking” the clay over open wood fires, which hardens it into the porous containers sold in villages throughout Java and Lombok. The earthen vases, like batik, tend to be decorated with geometric patterns and animal figures. Larasati, by contrast, creates bespoke designs using a gas kiln, resulting in more durable products.
This tendency to embrace custom while playing with artistic influences, she explains, is a defining ingredient of Indonesia’s up-and-coming generation of artisans. “A lot of them are already exposed to the West. They’ve been to the outside and are coming back and trying to mix.”
While Larasati’s technique is new to Indonesia, her materials remain local. She uses clay from Sukabumi, which lends a distinctive earthy color to her works – soft blues, speckled grays, and no-two-alike small batches of mugs, bowls and teapots. “I’m trying to keep my ceramics small and intimate. As an art form, ceramics are very personal.”
This ethos, which leaves room for artists to explore their personal taste, isn’t about appropriating Western techniques and styles. Take, for example, Maria Tri Sulistyani, who founded Papermoon Puppet Theatre in 2006 then built it up with her husband Iwan Effendi. Both are visual artists and are pushing beyond the ordinary forms of puppetry, like the ondel ondel I encountered on Car Free Day. Rather than adhering to the traditional format of Javanese wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, in which two-dimensional figures are backlit against a screen, the pair have added elements of teater boneka, a kind of informal children’s puppet theater. The atmospheric lighting and dreaminess that pervade their performances allow the artists to fully explore more serious themes and subjects, like Indonesia’s political history. The duo summed up their position in a recent interview with The Huffington Post: “Though Papermoon is not really creating a performance in the traditional form, we too want to share and talk about the values and ideals and choices of Indonesian people.” The result is both entirely Indonesian and unabashedly novel.
So perhaps it’s this unrestrained creative optimism that’s driving Jakarta’s artists to experiment so freely – not just in the local aesthetic but in all aspects of society. At Spectrum, Fairmont Jakarta’s open-kitchen restaurant, I meet American chef Andrew Zarzosa, a newcomer to Jakarta who is embracing his outsider status in the name of culinary invention. A week prior, he took his largely Indonesian team to Pasar Puri, a nearby market, to encourage them to “play around” with local ingredients and to unleash their creativity. Excitedly, he whips out his phone and shows me an Instagram photo of their best finds: chayote squash, like a plump pear dressed in tomatillo clothing, and the long aromatic roots of baby onions.
I discover the essence of this creativity in the restaurant’s signature salad. Inspired by gado gado, a distinctly Indonesian dish famous for its sweet peanut dressing and mixed vegetables, it is, in the chef’s hands, treated like an art piece. The standard boiled egg is cooked sous-vide for an hour then fried so that it’s crispy on the outside, runny on the inside. Carrots, peas and lettuce are arranged just so on a brushstroke of peanut sauce – a bold untangling of the iconic dish’s celebrated mess of vegetables. Even the rectangular serving plate is custom designed by Kevala Ceramics in Bali, so that presentation and flavor combine to highlight another aspect of Indonesia’s coming of age.
I take a second bite and taste the new Jakarta.
Built from the ground up, designed by award-winning firm Kajima and located in the prestigious Senayan district, Fairmont Jakarta is redefining luxury in the city with its 488 rooms and suites.
Located on the 22nd floor with an unobstructed view of the central business district, Fairmont Jakarta’s gastrobar, View, offers some of the best fusion cuisine in the city. Its menu is a playful melange of distinctly European and Indonesian flavors. For Jakarta in a glass, try a Kecombrang Sour, made with an extract of the red ginger lily, at hotel bar K22. Also on the 22nd floor, it offers sweeping views that include nearby temples and Gelora Bung Karno stadium.
In Indonesia, regular massages and reflexology treatments aren’t considered a luxury – they are encouraged for their medicinal benefits. Book an appointment at the hotel’s Willow Stream Spa, which offers a signature massage mixing Balinese and Thai techniques.
Head to the Kemang neighborhood to visit Dia.lo.gue Artspace, which sells upmarket contemporary crafts by local artisans, including textiles from Sejauh and ceramics by Ayu Larasati.
Sign up for a workshop at Indoestri and learn how to master the art of textiles, woodworking, machinery or finishing. Stop by their café for a cold brew made from One Fifteenth Coffee.