SukkhaCitta x Yo-Yo Ma: Indonesia’s Craftswomen Take on Fast Fashion

Bertram Flesch
Jan 2 · 5 min read

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“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.

Denica Flesch and SukkhaCitta artisans during the opening of t’angan, a collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Project.
Denica Flesch and SukkhaCitta artisans during the opening of t’angan, a collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Project.
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 world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma across 36 locations in six continents. Each concert is followed by a day of action, during which Yo-Yo Ma meets with local artists, social organizations, students and members of the public to celebrate local culture and explore how it can contribute to big and small solutions to society’s most pressing issues.

In Jakarta, the focus was on living in harmony with nature — a big challenge in Indonesia as the emerging country is struggling to reconcile its quick economic development with the protection of its unique environment. Together with local partner, awards-winning social enterprise SukkhaCitta, Mr. Ma had 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 learns batik from SukkhaCitta artisan in Jakarta
Yo-Yo Ma learns batik from SukkhaCitta artisan in Jakarta
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 Mr. Ma, 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, bio-degradable 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 to 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 cheap 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.”

Women empowerment through entrepreneurship, SukkhaCitta project with Yo-Yo Ma in Jakarta
Women empowerment through entrepreneurship, SukkhaCitta project with Yo-Yo Ma in Jakarta
SukkhaCitta’s Local Champion from Gesikharjo, Mbak Linna, during one of the workshops. The 27 year-old leads the women cooperative in her village.

Yet Indonesia’s craft industry is not without its challenges either. Since the introduction of synthetic dyes in the late 19th century, especially batik has become one of the dirtiest SME sectors in the country. Exploitation and poor labor conditions have deterred the young generation from the learning the craft. That’s why SukkhaCitta works directly with artisans in villages, the biggest and yet most vulnerable group of artisans. By reintroducing natural dyes and co-creating modern designs with their 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.

SukkhaCitta’s craft schools, women empowerment Indonesia
SukkhaCitta’s craft schools, women empowerment Indonesia
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 on the international market, share their inspiring stories with the world and become part of a grass-root 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.

Bertram Flesch

Written by

Bertram is the COO of SukkhaCitta, an awards-winning social enterprise that empowers craftswomen in #VillagesNotFactories.

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