The Blues Brothers: Indigo dyers in central Java

The original artists working with Lou in Solo; the indigo dyer on the right has since retired

Having been vaccinated, Pung and I once again boarded a flight to Solo to meet Lou Zeldis’s batik artists and dyers. Our first trip produced some lovely Lou Zeldis-designed textiles with the old batik artist we had the contact for. The remaining three original artists that had worked with Lou since 1998 then heard of the renewed work and contacted us.

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Getting the team back together

We visited each of these artists at their homes so that we could better understand the conditions that they are working in. All had taken other jobs to feed their families as it has been nearly ten years since Lou died and they last received an order. The great news was that they are all very eager to begin work again! The bad news was that none of them were indigo dyers and the original dyer had since retired and sold his dye studio to a developer. With my mind full of this challenge, I remembered the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers and couldn’t help thinking of Jake (John Belushi) telling his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) that he was bring the band together again.

Ibu Subono’s old batik gallery is now a wedding salon

The natural dye batik studio is now deserted

We brought all four members together again to discuss how to move forward with transparency and clarity, and then spent the day looking for an indigo dyer in Solo who they could work with. This old building in downtown Solo was the home of Ibu Subono where Lou originally had his batiks made and where the team originally worked together. The place is now a wedding salon and the back area where the soga brown and indigo dyeing was performed has been deserted for ten years now. I could only dream of how wonderful it would be to revive this as a batik studio again!

Solo’s last indigo dyer

Indigo dyed batik work in progress

The indigo dye vats

By the end of the day we finally found a man who seems to be the last indigo dyer in Solo. He is currently strong and wants to continue to take orders from batik artists but worries about the ability of the art to survive.

Cloth waxed and ready for dyeing indigo

The local market demand for cheap factory printed batik patterns has become an even stronger market since the pandemic as Indonesians have less money to spend on natural dyed, hand batik cloth. The textiles the indigo dyer showed us will sell for between USD 10 and USD25 per piece. This is after having been waxed with a hand drawing canting implement, dyed indigo, re-waxed, re-dyed with another layer of darker indigo, re-waxed again before finally being taken to another natural dyer using the brown soga dyes. Artists can only be working out of love of the art right now, and their pride as an artist, and perhaps the hope that someone will come around and pay a price that is commensurate with the art.

Batik cloth and slabs of batik wax

Waxed cloths waiting for a Threads of Life order

Pung and I promised each other that Threads of Life will seek out these batik artists, work out a fair price for each step in the process, and begin to work with them to keep this art alive. So, stay tuned! The Blues Brothers are BACK.