When Your Culture Becomes A Capitalist's Cash Cow: Guest Post by Alma AlFarisi

I'm really honored to share this great post today by my new friend Alma AlFarisi, founder of Kawula Muda. Truly ethical style involves asking more questions about a than just "was the person making this paid fair wages?", and Alma takes on the issue of cultural appropriation within fashion with wit and passion. 

 Alma AlFarisi recently relocated to Jakarta, Indonesia from Philadelphia, PA. Alma grew up in the States and now spends her time writing about cultural identity, tradition and heritage in the 21st century as well as fair trade fashion. From her time working in the fashion industry in the States and in Indonesia, Alma realized that exploitation knows no boundaries; neither distance, race nor gender. Las year Alma founded Kawula Muda, a social enterprise that focuses on fairly traded, artisanal batik fabric in hopes that we can help preserve the beautiful culture and people at the same time.

Culture is more than just an aesthetic. Its more than pretty prints and nice looking color combos, because behind all that luxurious eye candy there’s a story behind every fiber and stroke.

In Indonesia, batik is literally a part of everyone’s lives. I remember being in kindergarten and batik was already part of our uniforms. Here the term “batik” isn’t a reference to the process of hot wax resist dyeing, like it is in the West, but the actual fabric itself. Since the UNESCO ruling in 2009 of the intangibility of Batik’s cultural significance, there has been massive wave of batik appreciation across Indonesia, most felt in the consumption of garments using batik prints and patterns.

Here’s the problem; the appropriation of batik prints to be a part of the popular aesthetic trend. What started as appreciation quickly became exploitation, to meet the market’s demand.

The Kawung and Parang pattern is the most recognized batik pattern, especially in Java. What people don’t realize is that these two patterns are two of the most sacred patterns in batik culture, both were used only by Kings for special significant occasions such as meditation or religious rites.

Alright, so far we’ve got appreciation + excessive demand = exploitation. Let’s add a little more to the equation; Technology.

The last few years, someone thought it was a great idea to digitize batik patterns and print it as a computer produced fabric. This completely eliminates the batik process; the wax, the dye, the craftspeople who work on the fabric, and ultimately the excess money to fund the whole complete process. What comes next is a cheap product that surpluses in quantity and profitability which profits the producer greatly. But unfortunately, it also eliminates the work that goes into the fabric, therefore the income for many artisans are wiped out.

Let’s look at the wider picture. Ask the questions that are relevant to the problem as a whole from the consumer’s point of view. Why is printed batik so much more profitable? Obviously because it’s cheap to buy, especially for the consumer who comes from a low to middle income household. 

So what now? How to combat the exploitation that’s already been done, with computer printed Parang patterns sold in markets as a cheap substitution for the authentic-yet-unobtainable real thing

There are a lot of other alternatives such as stamped batik, that costs cheaper than the original hand drawn batik, but still uses wax and requires a certain amount of skill to make. Therefore still an artisanal product (yeay jobs!). Cold-wax printing is also another alternative; it’s a relatively new process, where the wax is transferred to the fabric via screen, like in screen printing. The cool thing about this new method is that hardcore batik traditionalists still consider this “authentic” batik because of its use of wax.  I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with artisans and entrepreneurs that developed this method and use it as their main business. While the product may never equate to the authentic hand drawn batik, it’s a great way to make batik affordable to Indonesia’s growing middle class without compromising the art. The cold-wax method is a great example of tradition and technology growing together to accommodate demand.

There are great social businesses that focus and highlight batik in their mission. Batik is, after all, an incredibly recognizable symbol of Indonesia. Socents such as Topiku (which incorporates recycled waste into their hats), Warlami  (focuses on the education of coloring with natural dyes to small batik studios and new artisans), Batik Fractal (whose founders developed a software that transfer drawings onto fabric before the waxing process), and Kawula Muda (fair trade and naturally dyed batiks with contemporary patterns).

The big answer to this big and heavy question is ultimately: awareness. Yes, a bit bitter and a bit melodramatic. Did you there was a one-stop end-all quick solution? It’s a bit preachy, I’ll admit.

It takes years to become aware of the differences between hand drawn, stamped, cold-wax or even printed batiks with just a glance. Even I stumble (a lot) of the times. Its good to lay the options out there and be a responsible and wise consumer, rather than be seduced by lure of buying into a culture and appropriating it for the thrill of aesthetic. Here’s the thing; with awareness, ignorance is eliminated, appreciation enhanced, balance is restored, climate changed reversed, superman and batman becomes friends, happily ever after.

So how does my maths equation look now? Ok, its not perfect albeit naïve, but I never said I was a mathematician… actually that’s why I went to art school instead.