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Kotagede Silversmiths #1

Kotagede Silversmiths #1 Photo by ultra-indigo

Photo by ultra-indigo

4 April 2014
by Harriet Seabourne

Last February, Simon Fraser from ultra-indigo went to Kotagede in Indonesia for a scoping visit in preparation for a series of workshops with local silversmiths. Kotagede silver craft is a treasured intangible heritage of Java, and silver products and the silversmiths have been around since the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Mataram in 16th century. However, competition from cheaper products have been affecting this age-old industry over the last few decades. The workshops, run in collaboration with AirAsia Foundation and Arkom, aim to provide a platform to recognise the strengths of the local silver crafts, whilst helping the silversmiths in Kotagede to develop new skills and to gain access to new international markets. Here, Simon writes about the world-renowned quality of silversmithing in Kotagede, and the challenges faced by the local craftsmen.

Turning off the road the car comes to a sudden stop. We step out onto the rough concrete parking place covered in wet grey pumice from the recent volcanic explosion. We have arrived at the village of Kotagede for our first visit, a weekend of conversations and laughter it turns out, the research nevertheless  for a specialist design thinking and design work shop for 18 craftsmen from this 400 year old silver community. Even if there is no shared language It is always a surprise how close the bond can be between people who have shared a professional training in working metal. Intense and demanding metal working makes family of us all when we travel and here in Kotagede it is no different. I explain that whilst I have not met this community before,  jewellers and gold and silver workers from around the world ‘know’ that the community is here. They are part of our personal global maps of practice that people who love metalwork carry in our heads. I have to confess that it is only through individual items scattered across the museums of the world and the occasional tourist trophy of a life sized silver filigree fish that I have knowledge of the work of this talented yet still surprisingly isolated community.

As Asia modernises master craft and artisan communities are under threat, simply melting away. More money can be earned by working as gardeners, drivers or by standing in the road helping wealthier locals and expats to park their cars than by drawing silver as fine as hair to create a paper-thin gauze of preciousness. Most Asian communities are aware of this loss but many of the heritage products talk of past or old fashioned values. They have no place in the apartments high amongst the towers of mega cities that have appeared overnight.  The crowns, flower brooches and ankle ornaments have no place in wardrobes stuffed with Prada bags, Feragamo Shoes or Dior day dresses.

Ultra-indigo, our London based design strategy house is here at the invitation of the Air Asia Foundation, brought together by our friends Joao and Evonne from the British Council London and Indonesia respectively. It’s been a whirlwind to get here but now that we are in the village a lot becomes clear very fast. We are all really excited to be here talking and debating. The Craftsmen turn out to meet us and stakeholders in the two year Architectural Survey arrive too. The survey by local architects  Arkom allows for the first time a clear recognition of the built heritage of this community. Centuries of fine building were damaged in the earthquake of 2006 and repairs are still sketchy or non-existent. Work needs to be done to preserve the warren of high walled streets where the view though a doorway reveals long rectangular courtyards. Filled with fruit trees and lined by characteristic long single story teak homes they are hugely inviting. Birds are everywhere singing in the trees but also more distressingly panicked and fluttering in cages. There is not much room for sentimentality in traditional village lives.

It’s encouraging too that so many of the craftsmen who want to join our workshop are young. The Air Asia foundation and Arco have been working to build youth and community groups and the power of that network joins our debate. Tremendous for me to hear younger community members stating, ‘I want to stay here and work here’.  Right. I am already furiously thinking about what we have to do and plan for. This fury of thinking does not stop for the 3 days of the visit. Welcomed into homes we are shown fabulous examples of talent and skilled work in repousse or chasing as it is called in Europe, of hair like filigree, massive bronze armour elements for temple sculptures and fine jewellery set with stones. Like many Asian mastercraft communities working across widley differing scales is not an issue. It is simply a way to ensure you make the best of your knowledge to support your family. It is also source of pride as these treasure s are unwrapped. Some pieces are so desirable I want them immediately and know how many people I know who would respond the same way.

So what has gone wrong?  A perfect storm has hit this community and the products it has created for generations. The extreme modernisation of a third of the globe at breath-taking speed, an Asian Financial collapse, earthquakes and the bombings in Bali have left  few routes to market for the designs, now rather traditional and out of step with contemporary Java.  The village families working in silver have reduced from 390 to 20. A heart-stopping decline.  It is families too who work at the trade, wives working alongside husbands and other family members in the quiet courtyards as the fierce Malay hens strut and spar amongst the vegetable gardens.

We will be back in a month to talk about designing, how to leverage the subtle local knowledges and how to find ways to keep the craftsman’s ragazzi together and laughing. Back to make new pieces with the guys so that you can buy them online or from outlets that plan to stock the new treasures. Watch this space.

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