Voices from a carved landscape

Intiyah is nobody’s idea of a shrinking lily. At age 33, she runs a freelance wood carving business out of her house while raising her daughter. Yet, here she is, rigid with embarrassment from her new-found literary celebrity, at a book signing of Pelangi di Tanah Kartini in the Central Javanese town of Jepara. She blushes and giggles like the high school girl she never had a chance to be.

Poverty forced Intiyah to quit school in eighth grade to help with the family’s cendol stall. And, since the age of 18, her medium, as with many of Jepara’s population of one million, is wood, not words. For nearly a decade, 1998-2008, Intiyah has done contract carving on chair-backs, welcome signs and intricate, traditional Javanese carvings of the wind (known as ventilasi udara) — all out of her modest home.

That experience has now turned her into an unintended wordsmith as co-author of a new oral history of the turbulent past two decades of Jepara’s fabled teak furniture industry. Published by the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the book traces the industry’s latest boom-and-bust cycle in the first-person voices of five representative players: Intiyah plus a village elder who spearheads a community forestry project, an art school-trained relief carver, a female entrepreneur whose five-business empire includes a log-yard and a boutique, a Forestry Department bureaucrat and a mahogany carver-cum-exporter.

One of the book’s two editors, CIFOR project officer Rika Harini Irawati, says she and her co-editor titled the compendium Pelangi di Tanah Kartini (Rainbow in the Land of Kartini) in reference to Jepara’s most famous historical personage — Raden Ajeng Kartini, a rare feminist icon in the canon of Indonesian school textbooks.

Kartini was the daughter of a 19th century regent. Rather than settling for the palace sequestration usual for noblewomen at the time, she attended school, learning to read and write Javanese and Dutch. Corresponding with European luminaries of the era, she praised, among other aspects of her native culture, the artistry of Jepara furniture, even going so far as to send some samples to Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands on the occasion of the monarch’s nuptials.

Intricate: Jepara craftsmen produce detailed reliefs, including this one from the city’s Senenan district.
Intricate: Jepara craftsmen produce detailed reliefs, including this one from the city’s Senenan district.

Just as Kartini gave voice to the previously unheard court women of her time, so too do the oral history raconteurs of Pelangi di Tanah Kartini add a human dimension to the dramatic statistical swings in the town’s economic fortunes, according to CIFOR’s Irawati.

“As researchers, our understanding of the town’s recent economic issues is based on theory,” says Irawati. “We thought it important to show how the local actors perceive their history.

” The “rainbow” of narratives in the book’s title contains more than its share of somber shades – personal adversity as well as local and global recessions.

In the last twenty years, Jepara has boomed and busted in reaction to economic crisis.

The first crisis was national and came after the 1998 fall of President Soeharto. With new international trade agreements encouraging investment and the rupiah being at a low, small furniture producers looked toward the international economy for a market. They managed to carve out near one percent of the global furniture trade — no small feat for a town of one million.

The second effecting crisis came with the 2008 global downturn. Just as foreign markets allowed Jepara to soar above Indonesia’s economic depression in the late 1990’s, so its export-dependency exposed it in 2008 while the rest of the country remained relatively immune.

And the demographic most deeply affected were woman carvers like Intiyah, who work out of their homes.

Yet, through imagination, perseverance and cooperation, the book’s protagonists survive and adapt. Intiyah points out that a lot of men from Jepara have moved to Indonesian islands outside of Java in search of work.

“In Jepara, there are already too many carvers,” she says, “but there is a lot of demand for carving off of Java. Leaving town allows these men to explore motifs and designs of their own, outside the expectations and confines of traditional Javanese carving.

”In turn, she adds, it means more work for the woman carvers who stayed behind.

For Sudiharto, the village elder who co-authored the book with Intiyah, the rush on wood supplies to satisfy the international furniture market in recent years has changed his views on environmental conservation. Sudiharto says he now sees trees as assets.

“The earth we live on is a blessing of God Almighty,” he says. “We should use it sparingly and in accordance with our needs.” The furniture industry is one destination for wood from Indonesia’s forests. Accordingly, this compendium of oral histories from this hub of global teak furniture production sheds light on local perceptions of the connection between the industry and environmental and gender issues.

By Melati Kaye