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Like many other Dutch-Indonesian refugees, our family took only a few meager possessions with us when we made the journey across the Atlantic from Holland to America. I was almost 4 at the time and once we arrived, we settled into a cramped and dark 2 ½ room apartment above an auto parts store on a busy street corner. Because we were starting with nothing, our apartment was sparse, but there were two objects that I will always remember in that bleak space.

One was a beautiful batik fabric that my father artfully folded and fanned across the wall of our living room. I would stare at the fabric for hours trying to decipher images of lizards, fish and ants out of the bright red, gold and amber lines. The other was the stone cobek ulekan  (mortar and pestle) that sat in its own place of royalty on our kitchen table. It was called to action practically every evening when my mother so patiently and rhythmically ground garlic and small red peppers into an aromatic paste of sambal.  These two objects from my parents’ homeland in Surabaya on the island of Java were the connection to their earlier lives and to our family’s history.

Through years of milestones such as graduations and weddings as well as tragedies of death and illness, the batik and the cobek were the mainstays of our lives. They were always there to remind us that every day was a part of the journey. The batik and the cobek had become a comfortable presence in our lives to help us move forward.

Fifty three years after we arrived in the United States, the memory of the beauty of the batik and the cobek in such dismal surroundings still resonates with me.  I can attribute its inspiration to my love of adventure in cooking. Though I no longer use the oelekan, I have adapted to the modern world, and usually grind my sambal spices in a blender or food processor. It is a process that always reminds me of my family’s own cultural past. And the batik had even more impact on whom I would become all these years later. I am a textile artist – I design and weave handwoven fabric to use in the home and as fashion accessories. That lovely batik was one of the few bright spots in our early lives as Americans.  And I cannot help but think that its presence moved me forward as an adult to embrace the world of textiles.

Felicitas Sloves,  July 27, 2012

6 Comments

  1. Hi Felice,

    I am glad you are proud of your heritage.

    We, my husband, two children and me, came here in 1959, and have lived in the New Orleans area since. We left Indonesia at the end 1957 and arrived in the Netherlands in 58. It was a rush departure from Indonesia due to the refusal of the Dutch to relinquish New Guinea to Indonesia. I did not bring my cobek and ulekan. We stayed in a pension in Valkenburg. After arrival all four of us came down with the flue, a bad one. I was the first one to get well. I went out to find some grapes to get rid of the nasty aftertaste of the flue. I found some; I also bought a Life magazine. Rightaway my husband wrote to the editor of Life to help us to move to a warmer climate in the US. We did not hear anything from him/her. My husband got a job rightaway and we continued with our life in Valkenburg until we received a letter from the Amercan embassy telling us that a friend of ours in the US asked them to help us with our emigration to the US. When it was time for us to leave and emigrate, one of the ladies I became friends with at the pension gave me one of her valued cobek and ulekan. She brought I think 7 or 8 of them in graduating sizes from Indonesia. She brought them to me and said: I want you to know how much I enjoyed our friendship. Did I ever enjoy using them, for many years. Unfortunate, I lost them, together with the interior of our house during hurricane Katrina. We rebuilt but have not had a cobek/ulekan since.

    Thanks for writing your beautiful story Felice. Take care, Marie

    • Marie,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your own story. It’s amazing isn’t it – how we hold on to material objects to help us stay connected to our past. I’m sorry for all that you lost in Katrina. I hope you are well. My husband and I visit NOLA often to enjoy your many fine restaurants and of course the music. It’s not too far from where I live in Memphis. I’m glad that you wrote about your family’s journey.

      Felicitas

      • Dear Felicitas,

        Re reading this article recently, it makes me want to thank you again for sharing your story. The items that you so beautifully described are now being appreciated so much more by the 3rd generation Indos who have a need to have something tangible represent that part of them that is Indo. Case in point, in the Netherlands, there is now much focus on “poesakas” Indische Testbare Herinneringen (Indo’s tangible mementos). I’ve come across these beautiful books that are used to teach school children about the former Dutch East Indies using stories about “poesakas” that families have been keeping as a tangible link to their heritage for many years. I commend you for continuing to create art that is meaningful and that for many who purchase your pieces will be “poesakas” kept for generations to come. (https://www.perssupport.nl/persbericht/3520e096-2ca4-49f9-b038-20520d479a59/de-lange-reis-van-de-poesakas.)

        • Hi Priscilla! Thank you for your thoughtful note. I love the idea of the journey of the poesakas, material culture that represents an emotional and historic journey. Many families who had to leave the former Dutch East Indies carried these bits and pieces of their former lives with them as they navigated their new world.Textiles and fiber of course is my medium and I seem to have inherited many textiles from my family’s journey. Integrating some of these fabrics into my work is an honor to me and in a way it helps me to memorialize the past. Sometimes it is hard for me to give up these pieces when they are sold but I am happy to pass on the memory to another.

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