Jepara: Bygone Maritime Center, Creative Carving, and Indonesia’s Most Famous Feminist
Indonesia is incredibly rich in resources. Sixty percent of Indonesian total land area is covered by permanent forests. Due to this abundance of wood, woodworking has been a big part of Indonesia’s output. Teak wood, native to south and southeast Asia, and primarily found in Java, is a high-quality, tropical hardwood and used for building high-end and long lasting furniture (and boats!). Woodcarving has been practiced since ancient times. “Centuries of historical records dating back to the seventh century BCE describe the abundance of teak forests in Central Java and the formation of skilled carpentry groups.”
Sultans, Shipbuilding and the Arrival of the Dutch
Jepara, a northern coastal town in Central Java, was once a prominent port for the kingdom of Demak and the center of their maritime power. It did much trading with Malacca and other parts of the archipelago. There was a demand for ships from Demak in Jepara where there were highly skilled woodworkers and carpenters. This shipbuilding industry greatly helped support the Demak naval power, namely against the Portuguese in Malacca in 1513. At the end of the 16th century, the Kingdom of Mataram conquered Jepara, until the Dutch colonized the region. Fierce fighting between the Dutch and Mataram took place in Jepara. Twice during 1618-1619, the coastal town was destroyed by the Dutch East India Company forces. As the Dutch rose in power and presence in Java, Jepara declined. Focus became more on Semarang (the capital) and other areas, and less on the former bustling port town. By 1960 Jepara was known for only two things: the feminist Kartini and its fine wood carved teak furniture.
Nevertheless, She Persisted: Indonesia’s Feminist, R.A. Kartini
Radeb Ahebg Kartini (1879-1904) from Jepara, was an Indonesian feminist who stood for Indonesian nationalism and the rights of women. “In particular, she wrote of the importance of modern education of women--the mothers of the future nation--and the need for the emancipation of Indonesian women from their entrapment in feudal patriarchal tradition.” Kartini is from the Tjondronegoro family who are descendants of a long standing and very influential East Javanese bloodline. Her grandfather and father were both committed to western education and her father hired a Dutch tutor for her and her siblings. This raised eyebrows because Jepara was a center of Islamic study and an important Islamic holy city. Kartini was introduced to Dutch feminist writings and nearly moved to Holland for studies (unprecedented for local Javanese women), but she didn’t have support from the colonial government nor the local community. Even attending the European university in Batavia (Jakarta) was stopped because an arranged marriage got in the way. After the birth of her only child, she died--there is still somewhat of a mystery as to how and why. Kartini also believed in the beauty of her hometown’s craft. It was Kartini’s “active interest that made possible the rebirth of the Jepara woodworking industry, which became, in the subsequent decade, the center of attention of an infatuation, in both the Netherlands and the colonies, with Javanese craftwork.”
After the 1970s oil boom in Indonesia, due to the growth of the economy, domestic purchases of intricately carved teak furniture increased dramatically. When the oil boom came to an end, the government--still wanting to grow the economy--developed the furniture industry for export. A Bali furniture trade show in 1989 sponsored by the Jepara government was a part of that promotion, and there Jepara introduced their woodworking to an international market. Around this time, Jepara saw huge growth in furniture sales. In 1986 there was an export of only US$30,000, and by 1995 exports had reached $150M and then to $225M by 1996.
Traveling to Jepara
About once a quarter I travel to Jepara to see suppliers and do quality checks on our orders. It takes about 2 hours from Semarang by car due to small roads, though only 70 miles away. Jepara is in many ways like the wild west--rough and full of sawdust in the air--and on nearly every vacant corner or lot there are huge logs, trimmed and stacked in pyramids, offered for sale. I tour the factories, meet the craftsman, learn about the process and see how the whole operation is run. I am always impressed with the level of quality of our pieces, and enjoy the friends I’ve made in Jepara. We always eat lunch at Beatrice’s, which has very good espresso (and good food too). So far I’ve only stayed overnight once, and mistakenly booked my room without getting a recommendation from one of my contacts. Next time I visit I’ll be staying at either Jepara Marina or Ocean View and look forward to exploring a bit more of the area as well as checking out Karimun Jawa, an island chain north and accessible by ferry.
Nestify, founded in Singapore in 2018, is an extension of Sweet Lime Furnishings, established in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands in 2003. Both companies carry a range of finely built, long lasting, customisable furniture, using high-end sustainably sourced teak, built by craftsmen primarily located in Jepara, Central Java. Nestify is available online for retail, and for projects for hospitality groups, design firms, restaurants, cafes, hotels, and offices.
1) H. Purnomo, R.H. Irawati, A.U. Fauzan and M. Melati (2011). Scenario-based actions to upgrade small-scale furniture producers and their impacts on women in Central Java, Indonesia
2) Schiller, Jim (1996). Developing Jepara in New Order Indonesia
4) Cote, Joost J. (2008). Realizing the Dream of R. A. Kartini: Her Sisters’ Letters from Colonial Java
5) TREDA, (2008). Indonesian Furniture Creativity in Woods
6) Photo of carved teak chest from Asian Civilisation Museum, Singapore
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