Art of Cultural Contact
Mayan Batiks and Batik Serigraphs
Historically, the development of man has been woven by threads of influence through the exchange of cultural ideas. Europe and the East known as the Old World or the eastern hemisphere was embraced from many directions. Contact by exploration of trade routes, conquests, religious pilgrimages, or crusades has affected records, knowledge, philosophies, life styles, literature, music, and art. The life of a nation or of an individual is affected by these contacts and influences.
Discovering the ancient Maya for myself while exploring the archaeological sites in the jungles of Guatemala, I was struck by the beauty and power of their architecture and carving on stone monuments. I was intrigued and mystified by their hidden messages. What did these remote but powerfully vibrant works of art mean to convey. With permission from the Guatemalan government, I made rubbings on cloth from as many stelae as I could to preserve information for historical, educational, and art purposes.
Several years later while working in Java and the jungles of Kalimantan, in contact with the Indonesians, I discovered their ancient art form of painting on cloth with the wax resist and dying technique known as batik. Batik originated in Egypt and spread to India, China, Malaysia, and was finally perfected in Indonesia.
I immediately recognized that the designs of the Maya from my rubbings could be transposed on to cloth through the batik art form. I selected three Indonesian artists. Ardyanto, Soelardjo, and Tirta, who worked from my drawings developed from my rubbings.
Throughout this time I gradually became aware of certain similarities between the Mayan and certain Asian and Indonesian cultures. This awareness, only strengthened my initial archaeological curiosity. Did the preColumbians evolve their culture from their own -inner resources or was the culture developed by the stimulus of outside influences of cultural contact? Who were the Mayans? Where did they come from? How were they brought to life?
Other questions arise concerning myth or reality. Large continents other than what we know today are geologically considered to have existed in ancient times; Atlantis in the Atlantic and Lemuria or Mu in the Pacific. It is believed that highly sophisticated civilizations migrated from these areas when land masses were sunken by some catastrophic occurrence. The peoples evacuating the sinking lands would have migrated in order to preserve themselves and their mother culture. Many mysterious, cultural, mythological and religious similarities can be observed in Central America between the Mayas with Egypt, Mesopatamia, India, Cambodia, China and Indonesia, the most obvious in architecture and stone.
The sudden and unheralded appearance of Maya civilization, a culture without roots in the soil of America, the physical type of the Maya themselves, the persistence of the legends to their coming, all serve to show that a comparatively small but enlightened wedge of newcomers was abruptly introduced into Guatemala from some oceanic region. Generally speaking however, the Maya bear little or no resemblance to the other American Indian tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
In developing the Mayan Batiks, a certain ancestral connection seemed to emerge between the subject matter and the artist in expressing the spiritual and emotional content of the Maya. The enigma of the Maya held in place by the veil of time and by obscure messages carved in stone by priest sculptors has inspired these interpretations into this batik art form and is a result of my personal cultural contacts.
--James A. McBride II
Batik: Mayan and Indonesian at Kaffie Gallery
By Joseph A. Cain, Professor of Art, Del Mar College
By one of those strange coincidences of history, the continuing expansion in this country of interest in the arts of Meso-America and southeast Asian countries parallels the political involvement of America in those parts of the world. While there have been countless exhibitions of pre-Columbian art as well as of art of Indonesia, American interest in batik as an art form is a fairly recent artistic phenomenon. The recognition of the great batik tradition of Indonesia has been long overdue. The exhibition of rubbings on cloth from Mayan stelae and Indonesian batik designs inspired by these rubbings is as much a tribute to the two cultures involved as it is a sample of impeccable taste and aesthetic discernment.
The selection of rubbings and batiks which were displayed at the Kaffie Gallery in Corpus Christi, Texas, through the end of July was organized under the direction of James A. McBride II. The conceptual--as well as the stylistic--relationship between the art of the two cultures involved varies according to the contemporary Indonesian artists' styles and interpretations. McBride, a Houston architect, made the rubbings to "preserve the mysterious messages carved in stone on the Mayan stelae...," he states in the forward of the exhibition cataIog.
"While working in Indonesia," he continues. "I discovered the art form or batik...the enigma of the Maya...has inspired these interpretations into the batik form by transposing designs from stone to cloth."
The synthesis between the spiritual and the sensuous is the most distinguishing feature of the Indonesian batiks. This art also seems to be concerned with the universal/rather than the particular. But unlike western iconography, the Indonesian way shows little evidence of a division between the spirit and the flesh--intellectual as well as emotional ideas are subsumed.
In our hedonistic attitude toward contemporary art, it is important to remember that these batiks were not created purely for aesthetic enjoyment. In the ultimate analysis, the work itself is unimportant except for the idea it represents, and only a few achieve the level of insight to see beyond the image. For most viewers, however, the imagery remains the ostensible embodiment of pictorial essence; it is not a symbol, rather it constitutes reality.
It is obvious in the works by Soelardjo that his rich imagery seems to be drawn directly from nature. His figurative formula seems to have evolved from his abstracting from valid natural forms. It is also apparent that his ingenuous technique ensures the development of a personal style in a creative manner.
Among the eye-catching items are a pair of large batik wall hangings by Ardiyanto Pranata entitled Seibal Stelae # 8 and Seibal Stelae # 9. Modern in feeling, perhaps due to the artist's use of an involved impressionistic watercolor technique, they are characterized by beautiful blues, greens and reds on a brightly-colored background.
From the time one first enters the gallery and encounters these handsorne works, he is totally captivated by them. The fascination persists long after viewing such works as Soelardjo's Bilbao Monument #3, with its strong contrasting textures and rich color effects. Such attractions are not easy to define--they are part sensual part aesthetic, part intellectual. And, one cannot exclude the sense of Oriental mystery.
Our knowledge and appreciation of Indonesian art and batik has evolved over a long period of time. Batik's exact origin is not historical fact. However, McBride points out, "Batik, originating in Egypt, spread to India, China, Malaysia and it was finally perfected in Indonesia."
Each artist represented in this display is able to maintain an individual styie, in spite of the need to yield to the rigid batik technique. While Soelardjo's works are diagrams of energy, Ardyanto endows his compositions with rich colors. His best works retain a certain Iyrical ruggedness, their sensuousness deliberately emphasized. Iwan Tirta, perhaps the intellectual leader of the group, produced a book, "Batik and Batik the Magic Cloth," as a result of his intense research on the art of batik.
The art of each culture, like the Mayans and the Indonesians themselves, can only be understood or appreciated on its own terms. Very often art remains the only tangible evidence of a civilization, lost, destroyed or continuing. Struggling through the melange of contemporary verbage in art criticism it must be remembered that humanity is itself universal, but that the artistic idiom varies, and its variations must not be allowed to obscure the artistic issues.
The works inspired by Mayan examples, by way of the McBride rubbings, rival their inspiration in concept and technique. In some instances, they are among some of the finest batuks ever produced. They add to the Indonesian range of imagery and individuality of decoration which is visually irresistable.
Mayan Rubbings, Mola Tapestries on Display - Jan. 22, 1972
By Martha Hemphill
Cloth rubbings of ancient Mayan monuments are on display at the Wilson Memorial Art Museum. James A. McBride II, Houston architect, opens the show of unique experiences today.
A reception will honor the artist from 2 to 5 p.m. today. The public is invited, Betty Hirsch, director, announced.
The museum is also announced new hours with the opening of the fall season. Beginning Sept. 5, museum hours will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Tuesday through Friday and from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
McBride, on assignment with the state department as an architectural consultant to the Agency of International Development, requested permission from the Guatemalan government to obtain rubbings of the Mayan stelae for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and for a traveling exhibit to be put together by the University of Texas.
There will be 18 of the cloth rubbing which were executed on unbleached muslin with oil or black shoe Polish. "They are faithful mirrorings of the low relief stone carvings from major Mayan monuments, stelae and temples," McBride said.
"We are most fortunate to have this display in Beaumont," Mrs. Hirsch said. "It is a unique collection and one that is not duplicated anywhere in the world."
As McBride selected the monument to be reproduced he stretched the fabric and dabbed or smudged it with oil or shoe polish. The resulting black and white or brown and white designs are far more legible in many cases than the original low relie carvings. Many of these works are found in dark tombs and temples where at best, they be poorly seen by the visitor.
The largest rubbing is about 14 feet tall and took about ten hours to complete. McBride began work on it after initiating the project with smaller and less complicated rubbings, about 10 a.m. After a gruelling day, which began with attaching the fabric to the stone with wide masking tape, he started to dab with oils. As darkness approached he decided to try working by candlelight, but the mosquitoes got so bad, he had to stop.
Covering with the work with heavy plastic sheeting, McBride completed. The work the following day.
When asked to place a value on it, he said that due to the educational nature of his work, which is not for sale, he could not. However some artists have asked over $1,000 or rubbings of smaller sizes.
McBride first used unbleached muslin ordered in Guatemala from Sears. The second order was re used because the company no longer stocked the item.
Today McBride stores the rubbings folded in a tight plastic bag and restretches them before an exhibit. His previous exhibit was at the Houston Library. Two of the pieces will be on permanent display in the now pre-Colombian wing being constructed at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.
McBride explains that through this venture he has developed theories, some proven by archeologists, that a superior civilization inhabited Central American before the Spanish arrived. As he worked with the glyphs, reproducing each one McBride began to notice similarities. Explanations of some of the rubbings are posted adjacent to the art on display.
In the East Gallery of the Wilson Center; a collection of Mola tapestries color ul, hand worked folk art by & Cuna Indian Women of the San Bias Islands of Panama, are displayed. They belong to Mr. and Mrs. Sanford I. Slack of Houston.
"The mola is an intricate, small tapestry," Mrs. Hirsch said, "created to be worn as a blouse, hand-sew, consisting of layer upon layer of vividly colored cloth stitched together."
The pieces seem to be appliqued, but they are actually cut through layers until the Indian seamstress finds the color she wants. By cutting away and sewing back the edges, she creates the design that she wishes. Each is original and none are like, the director noted.
A membership campaign is currently being organized for the Beaumont Art Museum. Prospective members can see the value of such a program currently displayed at the Wilson Center.
He went to build a city and discovered an art
Architect James a. McBride II went to Indonesia to design and build a new city in the jungle and fell into a spell of the ancient Javanese art form batik.
Today, McBride is back home in Houston and has brought with him a stunning collection of handcrafted batik wallhangings and fabrics. Each of the designs is a work of art that can add an individual touch in the decorating of an interior, even if it's just an accent pillow.
But, the contrast between these batiks' sophisticated destinations and their primitive beginnings is startling. These designs from Java are still produced in villages and some workshops by the intricate hand waxing and dying process that has been used for centuries.
McBride says he had heard a little about batik but didn't really "discover" the art until he was in Indonesia.
It was our highly developed country's need for new energy resources that propelled the Houstonian into an intriguing and totally unfamiliar culture in Southeast Asia.
"Roy m. Huffington of Houston, an independent oil operator, went to Indonesia several years ago to drill for oil. Instead he discovers gas," McBride explained.
"I went to Indonesia as an architect to work on the Pertamina Task Force, which was to design and coordinate construction of this new com-munity for the Badak LNG (liquid natural gas) Project located in Kalimantan, an island formerly know as Borneo.
"When I was about 10 or 11, my father would talk about the 'wild man from Borneo.' I remember that I wasn't sure where Borneo was, so I looked it up on a map and doubted that I would ever be in that part of the world.
"But, there I was, building a city in the middle of a jungle. It's a permanent town isolated from all contact except by air or by sea. There are no roads in or out, and it's located five minutes north of the equator. We built 600 houses, two schools, medical facilities, a golf course, guest house -a total town for about 5,000 people who come from all over the world to work in the refinery. It's really an international community."
Indonesia, a group of islands called an archipelago, is extremely rich in natural resources. McBride calls it an "enchanting country." The transposition from here to there, he adds, was literally going "from the concrete jungle to the real jungle."
Ancient cultures have fascinated the architect for some time. About seven years ago the State Department sent him to Central America to work on a low-cost housing project. During that time he became interested in the Mayan stone carvings. In order to take rubbings from the carvings McBride got letters from the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and from the University of Texas explaining that the rubbings would be for educational and artistic purposes, and then it took six months to get the permission from the Guatemalan government.
"Two rubbings are now in the pre-Columbian room of the Museum of Fine Arts. There are 20 in his collection.
"Every since I finished the Mayan rubbings, I have been trying to find a way to reproduce them into some form of art since to my knowledge this had not been previously done. I tried silkscreening some of the designs but wasn't satisfied," he said.
"When I discovered batik, I realized its potential for developing my Mayan designs. I selected three different batik artists in Java to work with. One works in sort of an impressionistic style, one in a style that has more accuracy in developing the traditional Javanese detailing that helps relate to the archaeological study, and the third does contemporary design."
Only 10 of McBride's rubbings have translated into batiks, so far. He has been invited to exhibit them at the University of Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C., where the Organization of American States (OAS) is planning an exhibit in the Pan American building, probably in March.