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SukkhaCitta & the Bach Project: Indonesia’s Craftswomen Explore Living in Harmony with Nature through Traditional Craft Practices

Adapted from a blog written by Bertram Flesh of Indonesia based Guild member business, SukkhaCitta

“I’m from a small village. I didn’t go to high school. I don’t speak any English so I was shy to come here. But I feel valued. I feel seen.” 

This is what Ibu Lilik shared after finishing her batik workshop in Jakarta, teaching a small group that included anyone from regular citizens to celebrities and ambassadors in her intricate craft. Together with five other artisans of her cooperative from Gesikharjo, East Java, she had traveled far to share her story. For these third generation craftswomen, it was their first trip to the capital and the first time they had ever been on a plane.

The batik artisans from Gesikharjo together with Denica Riadini-Flesch, founder of SukkhaCitta

Their workshops were part of the Bach Project, a global series of concerts and events by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Bach Project, a two-year journey during which Yo-Yo Ma performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations worldwide, is the perfect platform for celebrating craft and music as fundamental forms of culture. The project is motivated not only by Yo-Yo’s six-decade relationship with Bach’s music, but also by the composer’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division.

In each community it visits, the Bach Project asks: how does culture connect us? And how can culture help us to imagine and build a better future? Craftsmanship and its creative energy can help us answer these questions most fully. Alongside each concert, Yo-Yo and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performances. These public events and creative experiences are different in every location; they aspire to local relevance and global significance; they demonstrate culture’s power to create positive change; they inspire new relationships, connect partners across locations, and ask us all to keep culture at the center of our efforts to build a shared future.

To celebrate craftsmanship’s essential role in our communities and our society, Nest is identifying local artisans and artists in each Bach Project location to produce hand-rendered posters, local visual expressions that explore culture’s role in society, as well as curated collections of local craft products shoppable on the online marketplace for select locations. 

Left: The poster designed by SukkhaCitta for the Bach Project concert in Jakarta. Right: Creating the hand-dyed batik textile featured in the poster.

SukkhaCitta, a Nest Artisan Guild Member and award-winning social enterprise, was invited to design the poster to promote the Jakarta concert, an opportunity which expanded to include concepting and leading a series of workshops and activities as part of the Bach Project’s collaborative public events in Jakarta.  

In Jakarta, the thematic focus was on living in harmony with nature — a big challenge in Indonesia as the country reconciles its quick economic development with the protection of its unique environment. Together with SukkhaCitta, the Bach Project took a closer look at a topic that literally touches everyone: the way we make, buy, wear and dispose of our clothes — and what lessons Indonesia’s textile heritage has to offer.

Yo-Yo Ma learning the ancient craft of batik from Ibu Lilik

The devastating impact of the fast fashion industry is well documented: It is responsible for 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and with over 8,000 chemicals used in its production, it’s the second biggest contaminator of our planet’s fresh water. In Indonesia, the Citarum river is a vivid case: the untreated wastewater of 200 textile factories has turned it into one of the most polluted rivers in the world — leaving once proud fishermen to fish through plastic waste.

While new technologies and business models are very much needed, one of the key problems of fast fashion is rarely addressed: the invisibility of the hands that make our clothes, the untold story of their suffering. It is this disconnect, this anonymity that oils the grim machinery of the fashion world. This is why Ibu Lilik and her fellow craftswomen came to Jakarta. Together with SukkhaCitta and the Bach Project, they came to bridge the disconnect and show a different approach to making our clothes. Together, they opened the exhibition t’angan.

T’angan is a celebration of the hands behind our clothes. Hands that have been invisible for too long. The name is a play of two Indonesian words: tangan (hand) and angan (hopes, dreams). It embodies our dream of building a fairer world for the artisans in villages across Indonesia. From the use of natural, biodegradable dyes once common all over Indonesia and weaving with locally grown, rainfall-reliant cotton to creating beautiful, delicate motifs full of meaning by hand using hot wax, visitors experience an alternative to anonymous, machine-made clothes created from polyester and digitally printed in bright, yet toxic synthetic colors.

“Each of your clothes has a story, makes an impact, and has a cost — socially and environmentally. This exhibition is meant to make a case for handcrafted clothes as a powerful alternative to fast fashion,” says Denica Riadini-Flesch, founder and CEO of SukkhaCitta. “The problem is that we often don’t know what’s behind the inexpensive clothes we see in stores. By sharing our artisans’ stories and the beauty of their intricate, yet grounded techniques, we create a connection between the maker and the wearer. And what we see again and again is that this connection, the end of anonymity, not only creates appreciation for their handcrafted clothes but also inspires a more sustainable lifestyle, in fashion choices and beyond.”

Yet Indonesia’s craft industry is not without its challenges either. Since the introduction of synthetic dyes in the late 19th century, batik has become one of the dirtiest small-to-medium-enterprise (SME) sectors in the country. Exploitation and poor labor conditions have deterred younger generations from learning traditional crafts. This is why SukkhaCitta works directly with artisans in villages, the largest yet most vulnerable group of artisans. By reintroducing natural dyes and co-creating modern designs with artisans, they keep the craft relevant and enable more than 100 craftsmen and –women to continue their heritage in a more sustainable and inclusive way.   

Rumah SukkhaCitta is Indonesia’s first craft school. A place where young women can learn how to thrive from their craft.

For SukkhaCitta, the collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma also marked the launch of their craft school, Rumah SukkhaCitta, a place where young craftswomen from all over the country can come and learn how to set up and run their own craft business. “We see that education is the key to creating a better future for Indonesia’s next generation of artisans,” says Denica. “We want them to be able to compete in the international market, share their inspiring stories with the world and become part of a grassroot movement against the anonymity of fast fashion.”

For Ibu Lilik and her cooperative the trip to Jakarta was both rewarding and tiring. “It was really nice to meet people who appreciate the work we do. But I really miss my daughter at home” Ibu Lili says and laughs heartily. As of next year, she will be one of the instructors in Rumah SukkhaCitta Gesikharjo.

Learn more about Nest’s partnership with the Bach Project, and see all of the posters, including SukkhaCitta’s for the Jakarta concert, here