Soil Eating for the Earth (part 1): Interview with Pandu Rahadian and Al Ghorie from Jatiwangi art Factory, 2023
This interdisciplinary-seed project explores a relationship between soil and human health from artists’ perspectives to offer creative responses to decolonial and rewilding actions. I conducted a series of interviews with three sets of speakers.
Soil eating used to be part of many cultures including in Asia and Africa and is particularly common among pregnant women. Such indigenous knowledge used to protect the land from harmful substances for humans and animals, but this practice of care and connectivity with the earth has been excluded from mainstream awareness, destroying the relationships between humans and the natural environment. Using the practice of soil eating as an inspiration, can we reconsider the health of both soil and human bodies as we seek ecological justice?
As my first guest interviewees, I invited Pandu and Ghorie from an Indonesian artist collective called Jatiwangi art Factory. Up coming interviews will be with Rosanna Catterall and Signe Jensen at Knepp Regenerative Farms; and Dr Ros Gray at Goldsmiths University.
A clay cookie baked by Jatiwangi art Factory at Documenta fifteen, 2022
Eiko: Hi Pandu and Ghorie, so nice to see you and thank you for joining this interview today.
As part of Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF), you have been working a lot with soil including a project called Kota Terakota [Terracotta City] and I’ve been particularly interested in your edible clay project. I’ve tried your clay cookie at Documenta fifteen last year and I can still remember the physical sensation after eating one. A cookie became such a nice gateway into your creative and thoughtful approach to the natural and cultural environment in Jatiwangi.
First of all, can you introduce yourself and share what you do as part of JaF please?
Jatiwangi art Factory community
Ghorie: Yes, yes. Maybe Pandu first because he is our new director at JaF and represents the factory as part of the community.
Pandu: We are a collective from Jatiwangi, a small district of Majalengka in West Java. We founded this collective in 2005, focusing on working with people from here. Using art as an approaching method to make many possibilities for alternative solutions and for community problems.
Eiko: How did you start working with soil/clay?
Ghorie: When JaF started in 2005, we slowly started talking about tanah. Tanah can mean soil, clay, land, earth and territory, and ground, so we call it together in one word, tanah. We started in the rooftop factory, which is the family factory of Arief and Ginggi’s parents in Jatisura village. It started with a small concert and then we did the workshop and started inviting some artists to make a residency. We didn’t know about art residencies at that time, but I remember in 2006, Arief, who is the founder, was inviting performance artists who were quite famous around that time. One of them was from the Black-Market International Collective. We had a performance of these people from Jakarta. After that, Arief kept challenging artists by asking ‘can you do this kind of work or performances in a place that didn’t have art existing before’, in the middle of nowhere.
Jatiwangi is the biggest roof tile factory district in Indonesia which is their only profile. That’s what people are working for. It's very industrial, a very home industry. We started placing artists in the neighbors’ houses in three villages and asked the owners of the house ‘you don't have to give anything, you just add one more plate of rice for a guest.’ From there, we are making a kind of festival in each village, and it was, let's say quite no-budget work for people because they are just performance based. Since then, suddenly more and more artists started coming to Jatiwangi and then we started talking about specific things like tanah. At that time, we were inviting sound artists such as Saung Jabo, a quite famous Indonesian musician from the 80s and 90s, and we were exploring the mukti, the sound of the clay. After that, slowly making a band (Hanyaterra) and making the ceramic music festival (Rampak Genteng). Also, every three years, there is a year which we call the Earth Year. That’s when we have the music festival and ceramic project regarding tanah. Since then, we are focusing more and more on the tanah. But there are also problems in Majalengka, because we have many new guests from the big factories and industries coming like Nike, Puma, etcetera. We think tanah is not only a medium or material, but also an idea and a territory. So, it’s very complex. Maybe Pandu can add more.
Pandu: Yeah, a reason we work with clay is because our people here have a strong relationship about their life with clay. Jatiwangi itself has been producing roof tiles for the last 100 years, so it's easy for us to communicate with the people anything about the clay. We are trying to expand the meaning of the tanah itself. Clay or tanah as an idea, territory, and the material. So, we work with many projects based on those ideas.
Roof factory workers
Ceramic music festival
Eiko: Can you talk a little bit more about tanah, as a territory and idea, being beyond materials. How do you make tangible material into an intangible connection with other people?
Ghorie: OK. So, we had the momentum in 2019. We were making the Indonesia Contemporary Ceramic Biennale. As a starting point to make the declaration of our collective consensus, we called the biennale, Kota Terakota. We agreed on an idea of our identity and our city together as the Kota Terakota. We invited our Governor of West Java to make the declaration of the Kota Terakota and we had our mayor as our witness. We talked about the agreement together so from there we are not only talking about the clay as the material, but as a solid territory. We are working to influence the development of the city. We discussed what our identity was and what we should do together. Kota Terakota started working with not only artists but also policy makers and the business community. Everyone could join, talk, and share different perspectives and their abilities.
Kota Terakota became the city identity, and we influenced the government to make the policy of the new buildings in Majalengka to use at least 20% material of the terracotta. It's still a long way to go as we are under threat or something like that, yeah.
Pandu: Yeah, so, the city now officially puts the idea of Kota Terakota as a regulation for our city as a 5-year plan.
Eiko: That's great. Was it a difficult process to communicate your ideas and the importance of clay to policymakers?
Ghorie and Pandu: Ohh of course not very easy. Haha.
Ghorie: You can imagine, we started JaF in 2005 and only made the declaration in 2019. So, how many years have we spent...? Also, we didn’t have any funding in the beginning, so we started without money. But we had friends, so sometimes we called Friends Foundation or Parents Foundation. We were asking for money from parents or friends. We had many difficulties. But we were not thinking about that too much. We were thinking more about how we can stay enthusiastic for ourselves first. Because once we are enthusiastic, it can be contagious and spread to other people in the village and slowly to another district and region and so on.
That's why, we also have a monthly discussion to keep ourselves talking. We call the Forum 27an (dua tujuan). We are inviting many communities, our government, artists, policymakers, and curators. We have to talk among ourselves because, in a small village like Jatiwangi, a very remote area doesn’t have access to the infrastructure like art galleries or a museum. We try to make them ourselves, so people can have a richer way of life or a way of thinking. We are practicing ourselves with the neighbours to speak with confidence in public, to think about ourselves clearly in different ways, not only thinking about how to look for money or other problematic things. It's very difficult, even when the head of the gangsters speaks in the Forum, they are very nervous and their hands are shaking or something like that. But we are making imagination for ourselves, friends, family, and neighbours.
We also always had a gap between the community and the government because we sometimes do not have the same words or sentences about the same thing. That's why we started to make friends with the government, so it’s easier for us to talk with them.
Project Territory Majalengka x Kassel city, The Netherlands
Eiko: It is impressive how the whole project has become contagious, spreading to different groups of people in the community.
When Pandu gave me a clay cookie, it was spreading your culture, land, and ideas in my body directly. How did the clay cookie project come about and how important is it for you?
Ghorie: We have many members in Jatiwangi, maybe the active members are 20 to 30 people and up to 50. Each person has their own hobby. For example, my hobby is cooking so I do research about edible clay hampo which is also a very cultural tradition, especially in Pantura, East Coast in Indonesia. Hampo are made from clay, they are smoked in bamboo charcoal, and made thin and crunchy. It has an aroma of smoke and petrichor like when you smell the sudden rain in the summer. There are also cultural traditions for mothers and pregnant women to ingest clay, so I researched about it in Indonesia. Since I've started making the project in 2015, I met many friends who were researching about edible clay and I found out that there are many places in the world that also have the same tradition, like Suriname and Africa. In Europe, for example in Germany, they have the packaged edible clay which is sold at Bio market as a Superfood.
Since 2015, we've been making a project called Claynialism, a relation of the clay with colonialism, because our roof tile industry started in colonial times. So, I also wanted to research about that. After I had an exhibition in 2015, I am expanding my responses to other places where I have exhibitions. I'm now working on it with Pandu because he has a bakery. Pandu also made clay cake and bread at Documenta fifteen in Kassel.
Eiko: I only had cookies because bread and cakes were so popular. I missed them.
Pandu: Haha, OK. We can make it again. But in Documenta, I made cake and bread with clay from Kassel.
Eiko: Where did you find the clay?
Pandu: Some friends brought me clay. The clay must come from a clean area, not an agricultural area with chemical use. If the clay is good, you can make roasted clay to remove the bad things, make clay power, and use it. It's become quite difficult to find clean clay in Jatiwangi because of many reasons, like agriculture using chemicals.
Eiko: So, what can you do to protect the clay so that you can keep consuming it while the city is changing with different industries coming?
Pandu: Now rarely make the project because the clay that we used to make edible clay with is no longer safe. But we are now purifying some clay by rain and the sun, leaving it outside for one year. And after that, we will process before making it into something. We also have the traditional market we can buy from. Still, a small amount of edible clay is available in the market.
Eiko: The Food Standard Agency in the UK advises pregnant and breast-feeding women not to ingest clay, while mentioning that it is ‘“sometimes” consumed by African and Asian communities.’ Because they worry about ‘high levels of lead and arsenic found in the product’. But there is also evidence of the practice dating back centuries in different cultures, including Europe in the Seventeenth– Eighteenth centuries. I’ve also read that some Japanese, Sakhalin Ainu and other indigenous communities used to ingest clay. It seems better to find a way to keep clay healthy and edible than stopping people from consuming them by allowing harmful substances to spread in clay.
Ghorie: It depends on how you treat the clay. In the US and some European countries, they call clay eating culture a mental disorder. After I did further research with my friend Marsha Ru, an artist from Russia, living in the Netherlands, we found many papers around the topic. The name of the habit of eating clay is called geophagy. When we are making the edible clay project, we make a disclaimer that it’s your own risk to try our edible clay works. Before I make cakes and other food, I treat clay well and test them as much as possible. Removing the heavy metal material and bacteria and then only using very very thin particles. We try to be safe for ourselves, too. In 2015 we did chemical analysis in the Netherlands to see the percentage of the minerals contained in clay. But it’s very expensive!
Eiko: How was the result of the test?
Ghorie: A lot of good minerals for the body. That's why our ancestors and our parents used to ingest edible clay. Clay offers minerals that are fine, like magnesium and calcium. It can be harmful and very dangerous to the baby when a pregnant woman eats unclean clay. It's also about the dosage of how much you eat.
Eiko: It's not like eating any soil, right? You need to know exactly what you're doing which ancestors used to know.
Ghorie: Yes, yes, yes.
Eiko: You mentioned how you work with friends, neighbors, and family. How are mothers and women involved in your projects? What do they bring into your ideas and sharing of knowledge?
Pandu: Actually, the inspiration for our project came from the mothers and women who have cultivated knowledge about clay so that it can be eaten and is believed to be good for a pregnant woman's body. Starting from there, we thought of cultivating the clay into more fancy food so that maybe it would be easier to accept and the culture of consuming clay in our place could be more widely seen.
Eiko: Your edible clay project and other clay related projects are raising awareness of environmental issues and sustaining the knowledge of ancestors and ecology of the landscape of Jatiwangi.
Ghorie: As we work, we produce more and different projects. For example, we now have the Perhutana project. It's about making the Forest Collective while keeping the relationship with the clay and land. We have many programs, discussing wider relationships and different aspects of ecology. We are thinking about the health system, education, and food security with the value of our identity. But the most urgent project for now is the forest project.
Pandu: It’s related to tanah itself but as a land. Because now, in our government projection, our village is the center of the industrial area in West Java. That’s why companies such as Adidas and Nike made new big factories here. We, as villagers who live here, don't want our villages to suddenly become strange. So, we tried to hijack the land by buying it through the collective way and growing the forest in the middle of the industrial area.
Eiko: You are directly protecting the land with the forest?
Pandu: Yeah, before the big company comes, we buy first.
Ghorie: We are making it like a real estate strategy. We sell the land 4 by 4 meters square but instead of making the apartment, houses, or any buildings, we're making the forest.
Eiko: How is the new situation of Jatiwangi as a center of the industrial area actually impacting on the relationship among people, nature and traditional cultures?
Ghorie: The arrival of large industries to our area has had an impact on various aspects. Many new people from various cities coming to work in the new factory made us not know our neighbours as well, people became busier, so they rarely meet and talk to each other. Talking about how large industries work is of course more in the opposite direction to sustainable and environmentally friendly concepts, that's why we thought of creating a collective forest project to offset massive changes in our area. We cannot avoid change, but we always believe that, through art, creating a sense of joy can give another strength to the people who live in Jatiwangi. Rampak Genteng our ceramic music festival is a form of artistic work that can bring neighbours and villages back together.
Eiko: Can I buy the land, too, to protect the clay so I can eat more cookies?
Ghorie: Yeah, yeah, yes of course.
Pandu: Very welcome.
Eiko: Do you have a future clay project plan?
Ghorie: Yeah. Our projects grow along other projects, keeping the connectivity and talking about tanah. From the edible clay project, we started talking about colonialism. From there, we are now talking about coffee, thinking about spices and other related issues. But we never expect anything or make plans to fix where a project goes or how it develops. Projects get slowly shaped along the broad idea of Kota Terakota and storytelling from the beginning. Next year, we have a ceramic Music festival. Also, my work is developing an idea of economy. Economy in a different way because the economy is always ‘eco-no-me.’ So maybe we can flip a word and call it ‘eco-on-me’, something like that.
Eiko: That sounds great. Economy should include eco, and me, and us.
Pandu: We are now improving our economic projects, running a bank and make our currency from the clay. Because we don't have money, we decided to make them. You saw them in Kassel?
Eiko: Yes, I did. I’m really excited to see how your ‘eco-on-me’ project develops and learning about the new banking system! It was so nice to speak with you both today. Thank you!
 Madziva, Cathrine, and Chinouya, Martha Judith. Clay Ingestion During Pregnancy Among Black African Women in a North
London Borough. Frontiers in Sociology 5. Frontiers Media S.A, 2020.
 Mahaney, William C. et al. Mineral and Chemical Analyses of Soils Eaten by Humans in Indonesia. International journal of
environmental health research 10.2 (2000): 93–109. Web.
Jatiwangi art Factory: https://jatiwangiartfactory.com
Al Ghorie: https://alghorie.home.blog
Pandu Rahadian: https://www.instagram.com/pandurahadian