Last up date:2000/09/03
written by David Wagner and produced by The Drachen Foundation, 1905 Queen Anne Avenue North/Second floor Seattle, Washington 98109 U.S.A.



Indonesia is an enormous country with a complex society. This gathering of 13,677 islands invests a span of ocean greater than the width of the United States. There are over 200 languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. Highly sophisticated city dwellers and artistic communities with cultural and religious traditions well in advance of the West thousands of years ago, live under the same flag as primitive farmers and animist aspects of this archipelago nation have been largely overshadowed by recent political and economic difficulties. This exhibit provides a rare opportunity to experience the remarkable art kites and art forms which symbolize the spirit of these gentle, creative, people.

These unique artifacts portray individual and group expression in a very visually and spiritually aesthetic society, where traditional and contemporary images serve as inspiration for fantastic evocations in many mediums. We have placed the kites in the cultural perspective in which they were created, with sculpture, textiles, music and dance.

This culture is changing rapidly with the modernization of the region, and the intense demands of a multi-racial and increasingly cosmopolitan society. The enormous traditional kites of Bali, and the festivals created around them, are unrivalled in ritual and ceremonial significance, but are difficult to locate in the vastness of this tropical nation, and even harder to interpret. The delicate leaf kites of East Sulawesi form the basis for the development of man-made flight which is the direct antecedent of the airplane. Kites were used in fishing and hunting for centuries in West Java. And today, Indonesian kitemakers create highly stylized flying creatures from the vivid images that surround them in their evolving world.

We have captured a glimpse of this disappearing world for your wonder and pleasure. It is a rare and unlikely event, a manifestation of the exotic dreams of this unusual culture.



The uses of kites have been many and varied , contributing greatly to man's need to extend his physical and mental reach. Apart from its religious and ceremonial significance, and as an object for divining and celebrating fertility, birth, and destiny, the kite has been a hard-working tool of mankind. It has been used for signaling over vast distances, fishing, measuring, and divining the secrets of the atmosphere. In the West, the kite's major contribution was its role in the development of the airplane.

Because of this significance as the first form of man-made flight, the birthplace of the kite is still under scrutiny. It has been generally accepted that the kite was first invented in China long before the beginnings of written history. Recently, however, there has been sufficient evidence to suggest that it may have originated independently in the Malay Archipelago of Indonesia. There appears to be little written evidence from the earliest times, but by the fifteenth century, kites were so well established that contests were documented in the Malay Annals, an historical documentation of life in the islands.

These kites featured a wing structure that appears to be unique in form and structure. It does not fit in the established pattern of evolution that marks all other kites with their origin on China. Perhaps it was influenced by the exceptionally graceful sails of the Indonesian fishing boats. This structure apparently migrated to Malaysia and became the basis for their exquisite wau kites, beginning with the wau merak of Johore province. Many kites in the Philippines seem to have developed from this shape as well. Evidence may yet be forthcoming. Cave painting recently discovered in Muna, Indonesia, may depict kite flying in great antiquity. Photographs and carbon dating are soon follow.

Possibly these ancient drawings depict kites being used in the oldest of their early activities-fishing, religion, and war; to finally evolve into art of considerable cultural significance. The tradition continues today as the work of Indonesian kitemakers often working in isolation, reflecting the great depth of art and craftsmanship that characterize artistic endeavours in this unique country.



Kites may have originally been developed in Indonesia as a device for catching game by a very resourceful people. One of the most remarkable of fishing methods involves the use of a kite, attached to the fishing line, then flown over the water past surf and obstructions. Kite fishing has been practiced throughout the South Seas for centuries, but it appears that it originated in West Java, where it spread to the Malay Peninsula.

The kite itself is often made from a single dried leaf of a local orchid, strengthened by a pair of slender bamboo rods threaded through the leaf near the margins and crossing one another at the top and bottom. It is most often flown from the end of a long pole, and operated by the fisherman in the front of the canoe. A line extending from the bottom of the kite carries tha bait. There is no hook, only a loop of line. The bait can thus be played on the surface of the water, a long distance from the boat. The fish, usually garfish cruising in shallow water, are snared by their tooth jaws and pulled in by the fisherman.

In Lampung, the water near Mutun village where kite fishing is practiced is known as Hurun Bay. Today, most kite fisherman there plastic and bamboo to build their kites.


The caves of Pangandaran are filled with large fruit eating bats, called flying foxes. Every evening, many thousands of these bats leave the caves and fly to the jungle to feed all night. Long ago, Indonesians developed a method for catching them as they pass overhead.

Several fish hooks are attached to the flying line, facing downward, below the kite, which is flown considerably higher than the streams of bats traveling overhead. By carefully maneuvering the line in front of an approaching bat, the hunter can hook him with a sharp downward pull. Then the fight begins, as a flying fox can have a wingspan of three feet, and produce a tremendous amount of lift. Once it is brought down, the bat is cleaned and cooked, and is considered a delicacy.


The sport of kite fighting is very popular throughout Asia, and it is the same case in Indonesia. Throughout the year, fighting kites are made in extremely large numbers. They are simple in construction, of only two pieces of bamboo and paper, but the spar must be perfectly tapered and balanced. The kites are not expensive, and are lost quickly during the aerial battles that take place in the skies over every village. The kites are flown with string that has been coated with glue and powdered glass. The goal of the competition is to slice through your opponent's string with your own, and cut his kite free. These kites are designed to be very fast and maneuverable in the air, and an experienced flyer can direct his kite anywhere in the sky. The game is played by many children and adults as well. Some of the older flyers become highly skilled and gamble large amounts on the outcome of the competition. Indonesian kite fighters are considered to be among the best in the world- in 1998, an Indonesian won the world championship in France. MATERIAKS & STRUCTURES THE LEAF KITE The first Indonesian kites, perhaps the first kites in the world, were made from the simplest of materials; a single dried leaf. The stem of the leaf served as the kite spine, and when attache properly to a string, it could be flown. This may have evolved into larger bamboo structures covered with dried leaves. The Balinese pecukan is also known as a leaf kite because of its distintive shape, and may be a highly developed form.

Such kites are still built this way in Sulawesi. The leaves are carefully trimmed and attached to the bamboo frame with stitching made from thin strips of rattan. These kites actually fly well and are an exceptional tribute to an ability to utilize and master the simplest of materials in the environment to create the wonder of flight. Kite used in fishing are still built of leaves in areas of Indonesia today, where they are perfectly in tune with their tropical environment and the needs of their makers.

Indonesian kites vary widely in their design and construction. Many evolve from the classic ellipsoidal wing shape, but the fantastic creative imagination of Indonesian artists and craftsmen has produced structures that encompass any possible shape. These are the kreasi baru, or 'new creation' kites. It is difficult to believe that some of the creative kites in this exhibition will fly, but they all do, and very well indeed. Indonesian kites in flight reveal a sophisticated level of awareness of weight, aerodynamic balance, and stability.

The structural drawings shown here are the three indigenous Balinese kite forms. They are ancient designs, and although the kites themselves are enormous and appear ponderous, they have been developed over many years by undagi, or professional kite designers, to perfectly suit the environment in which they fly and the concepts they symbolize to their makers.

Indonesian children work with the simplest of materials; leaves, feathers and scraps of paper and plastic. Young boys create delightful bird kites with three-dimensional bodies of cloth stretched over complex bamboo frames, with wings that fold and are cleverly tensioned by an arrangement of bamboo, rings and string.

These are often the starting point of the creation of fabulous flying images from mythology, contemporary cultural icons, and the Hindu religion. With rare exception, these works show great creativity and mastery of old and new materials and techniques. In most cases, the materials used in the construction of these kites are donated by the local community.


@A deeply aesthetic society has developed in the islands of Indonesia. Throughout this vast and complex archipelago nation of 13,677 islands, traditional and contemporary images serve as inspiration for fantastic evocations in many mediums. This is most completely epitomized in the ultimate island of Bali. Every Balinese dirt-track leads eventually to a village with walled temples and elaborate carvings, and every neighborhood has its gameran orchestra, with its unwritten, ever-evolving rhythms, accompanies the interminable shadow puppet theatre plays, the wayang kulit, throughout the night.

In this environment of image, ritual, and craft, artistic expression is an unquestioned tradition. Small children apprentice as musicians or dancers at the age of five. Design and form in architecture, textiles, engravings, and sculpture intermix and re-emerge in a myriad of traditional and contemporary influences. Ancient Malay print and carving motifs become irrevocably entwined with Islamic, Hindu, and ani-mistic spiritual images. Intricate and highly evolved adornments appear on walls and costumes alike.

Kites are another form of artistic and spiritual expression in this vivid articulation. They may act as visual and symbolic manifestations of Javanese gods or stylized animal and insect forms. Some kites depict the interwinings of life and death, the struggles of gods and humans. Even the experience of music is included; many Indonesian and Malay kites are equipped with bowed hummers that produce a rich rhythmic sound that changes with the wind. Sometimes many hummer kites fly together and create a delightful musical harmony. Many aspects of traditional and contemporary art appear in the design of Indonesian kites, in great contrast to Western kites, which are almost exclusively seen as toys or miniature flying machines.


Typical Indonesian kite motifs include birds, insects, and fish-ubiquitours creatures in the natural tropical environment. These are sometimes realized in astonishing detail, as with the Sumatran eagle kite, but are more often shown in exotic stylizations that reflect the dramatic mix of influences. The incredible diversity of tropical flowers and butterflies are favorite subjects, particularly in their locally adapted variations.

Another major grouping is characterized by the representations of mythical personalities, again displaying wild variation. Many of these motifs are spiritually or culturally based. They range from representations of Vishnu, the Hindu creator/destroyer god, to her carrier, the mythical Garuda bird. Temples and religious ornamentation are often depicted in glorious color form.

The third most common subjects are forms of transportation. Elaborate and often hilarious detailed constructions of boats, trucks, motorcycles, horses, trishaws, helicopters and rocket ships take to the air, often with several moving parts. They are cleverly designed, and never fail to fly or delight.


Indonesian art forms are often interwoven with the spiritual aspect of life in the islands. Many artistic and craft expressions, including sculpture, kite, music, even architecture and boat design, evolve in relationship to worship or divine deference. Indonesian, and particularly Balinese society, is a rich mixture of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and animistic religions, and these influences are manifested in a complex and fascinating aesthetic in the arts. Western technology and cultural icons have also influenced the traditional forms.

Bali, in particular, is a culture in which life is dedicated to reincarnation and is culminated by the purification achieved in complex cremation rituals. Shrines are everywhere, and the official calendar lists 200 religious festivals every year. As with the other arts, kites play a part in the interaction of god and man.

The color of traditional kites always include red, white, and black. These colors denote life, goodness, and evil, symbolising a trinity, the manifestation of God. The kreasi baru or modern creative kites, are also, typically, spiritually-based forms. The Hanuman, the monkey-god hero from the Ramayana, is a classic subject, usually constructed in 3 dimensions, some with human hair. Even the colorful animal and insect kites reveal a reverence for the wonders of natural creation that occur all around them occur in their tropical environment.


The Indonesian people love festivals and celebrations of any kind. In Bali, even funeral rites mean a parade, and can bring all commercial activity to a halt for days at a time. Kite festivals as well can be celebrate affairs. Kite making and flying is recognized in most of Asia as a legitimate art and sport, and in Indonesia is taken a step further by their incredibly diverse and creative expressions. The Indonesian International Kite Festival, held every year in July, is the longest and most complex kite festival in the world. Spanning 14 days, 4 cities, and thousands of miles, it takes participants from many countries on a safari-like journey across the island archipelago.

Indonesian kite festivals, like many Asian kite festivals, are often derived from harvest and planting rituals. The great Balinese kites sometimes carry rice husks aloft, symbolizing the replanting of the rice paddies over which they are flown after harvest and the endless cycle of life, death, and regeneration.


The kite festivals of Bali are unrivalled in ritual and ceremonial significance. The great bebean and janggan kites are built by the banjar or village organization, in each town. Strict traditional observances govern every aspect of its creation. The village holy man indicates the proper day for kite building to commence, after consulting the traditional calendar. After kite building is completed, a priest is usually invited to bless it, offerings are made for its flight, and a feast follows. The kite is stored in a building constructed specifically for this purpose.

At the festival, the enormous kites are carried by their teams on palanquins to the field, completing a long parade through the town. Each kite is accompanied by its team, or sekaba consisting of up to 50 people, and including a gamelan musical ensemble. A festival may attract up 250 teams.

After the opening ceremonies, which include long performances of dance and music, the kites rest on their platforms, where prayers are completed. Tha launching of these great kites is an amazing spectacle. Up to a dozen team members hold the flying rope and control the kite, while several more lift it into take-off position. Most of the other team members are musicians who accompany all the preparations with rousing compositions that increase in tempo as the kite takes off. Usually 8 or 10 kites are prepared and launched at once, and the combined crescendo of music and the cheering of the enormous crowds are deafening. As the kites climb into the air, the band walks along under their kite while continuing to play, accompanying its flight with their music, and offering both on the sky.

The janggan kites resembles exotic dragons with their elaborate naga heads and 250 foot tails, and are an amazing spectacle in the air. The bebean kites sway like schools of huge catfish, which they are meant to resemble. The ritual of life and death, and struggle between god and human are reenacted in the sky in the same aesthetically realized spirit as the funerals, weddings, dances, and religious ceremonies that characterize this highly evolved culture.

Concerning the origin of kites in Indonesia, there is little documentation in existence. This is not surprising considering the vast scale and complexity of this enormous island nation. Much of the recorded history was begun by European traders and colonists in the 16th century. The majority of this work thus reflects a Western bias and interpretation.

However, by the fifteenth century, kites were so well established that contests were documented in the Malay Annals. Much of the written and photographic history of kites here is quite recent, and conclusions drawn from this information somewhat speculative. Indonesia has gone through rapid political and economic changes in the last three decades, and much has been lost. However, it is clear that Indonesia and Malaysia have evolved a basic sail shape that is apparently unique in the world of tethered flight.

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