My mother, or Amala as I call her, used to travel frequently to Malaysia, Indonesia and other Pacific Rim countries. In Malaysia, she worked mainly in Sarawak and at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) on community forest issues. She specialized in multi-stakeholder and conflict management practices and applied these tools in the building of community forestry networks, along with new policies to support these Southeast Asian communities.
As children, my brother and I would await her return, the inevitable unpacking of suitcases and uncovering of a roll of colorful batik cloth or beautiful shadow puppets 'Wayang Kulit' and 'Wayang Golek' figures that ended up adorning our home.
A distinct memory surfaces of my amala unpacking a package of spicy, sugared tamarind fruit; as I greedily bit into a piece, something unexpectedly bit my tongue back. Hard. Shocked, I flung it out of my mouth, while my mother tried valiantly to contain the reams of laughter bubbling up. She failed. As she cried laughing, I burst into tears, distinctly unamused.
Adventurous amalas, you gotta love them!!
So although our home had distinctly Tibetan overtones, I grew up surrounded by echoes of Southeast culture via its textiles, art and 'debatable' treats. Perhaps it’s no surprise after all that I slowly made my way to Southeast Asia.
Although as a family and later as a student, I'd spent quite a few sun and sea soaked holidays in Thailand; it was only a couple years after graduate school that I moved to Malaysia to work in international public health. With Kuala Lumpur as my base, I traveled widely through the Asia-Pacific region for work and pleasure, although happily this was frequently intertwined.
Which brings me back to batik. When I think back, there are two batik infused memories that stand out in particular; the first is of walking through the beautiful Ullen Sentalu Musem with two of my Javanese girlfriends.
This gorgeous private museum in Yogyakarta features Indonesia’s Mataram Dynasty and was brimming with examples of the exquisite and detailed royal batik patterns. In this heart of Javanese culture, my appreciation for batik as a handicraft took hold.
I quickly fell in love with these very traditional Javanese batik motifs and brought back some fabric and skirts. I wore these to work frequently and found that they came in handy for an ASEAN Asian Task Force on HIV/AIDS meeting in Bandung hosted by the Indonesian Ministry of Health (MOH). Afterwards, I was presented with my own dainty Wayang Golek as a gift from the MOH and felt flush with happiness. In my own small way, I felt I had followed my Ama's footsteps in working with and for the beautiful people of Indonesia, Malaysia and Asia Pacific♥
My second batik memory centered on a special exhibition that was showcased at the Islamic Art Museum in 2012, right here in Kuala Lumpur.
Entitled “Ann Dunham’s Legacy: A Collection of Indonesia Batik”, it featured President Barack Obama’s mother's personal batik collection from the years she lived in Indonesia. She was deeply interested in batik and was committed specifically to supporting female artisans and craftswomen expand their industry through micro credit and small enterprises.
Getting to view this aspect of Indonesian culture through the lens of the mother of the man who would become our President was a definite treat for me. Not to mention pondering on how this may have shaped and molded his understanding of women, traditional art forms, and the importance of artistic and financial independence.
Since then, I often searched for interesting colorful batik patterns and occasionally, designed my own dresses. So when it came time to meet my future in-laws in Denmark, I thought immediately that it would be quite appropriate to meet them in batik, thereby sharing with them a little bit of the culture and place that we called home. I pulled out all my random fabric pieces collected in Malaysia and Indonesia and put together a few dresses just in time for our trip to Copenhagen.
All this personal preamble attempts to convey my interest but limited knowledge about batik, particularly in the context of Malaysia. So it was with a keen pair of eyes that I approached ILHAM Gallery’s latest exhibit “Love Me In My Batik”.
This was Batik&Bubbles second visit to ILHAM after its inaugural exhibit on famous Malaysian artist, the late Dato' Hoessein Enas. Since Batik&Bubbles introduced readers to ILHAM Gallery as our own inaugural post, which you can visit here if you missed it (we highly recommend that you do!), we will dive straight into this new exhibit.
This time, we were so fortunate to be met by Ms. Rahel Joseph, the very knowledgeable, and friendly Director and Curator of ILHAM Gallery.
With the gallery to ourselves, Rahel’s passion for the Arts and her in-depth understanding of batik as an art form was radiantly clear during our early morning private art-talk around the gallery's two floors.
We expected to to be introduced to outstanding batik textile pieces in this collection but this exhibit turned out to be so much more interesting, complicated and political than I had ever expected!
But first a very quick primer on what is batik and how it's created.
Fellow culture vultures may know it's a process of applying hot wax in designs/patterns on a cloth and then dyeing the cloth in one or more colors. The wax protects the original color(s) by resisting the dye color, and thus once dried, the wax is removed and a specific pattern or painting emerges. This very process is captured in the word 'batik', which means 'to dot'.
Batik handicraft and batik textiles have existed for over 2,000 years. The technique spread along traditional trading routes to countries as far as Central Africa and the Middle East to neighboring Asian countries. The allure of batik is still visible in a myriad of ways in which batik has been adapted and woven into a specific community's cultural heritage vis-à-vis its fabric and textiles.
"Love Me in My Batik" however is not centered on this rich history, which has likely been well covered by many a textile and art museum before. Instead this exhibit is finely focused on the transition of batik as a textile medium to its ascent as a fine-art form and its role in the formation of the modern Malaysian identity.
My ears perked, Rahel explained that this transition was pioneered by Chinese immigrant Chuan Thean Teng, who was born in Fukien China in 1914 and moved to British Malaya at the tender age of 18 after his training at Amoy Fine Arts Academy. He traveled to Penang to join his relatives and was quickly enthralled by the lush verdant tropics and the batik technique.
Inspired, he started a batik factory with his relatives but his business soon floundered and he was left with reams and reams of extra material that was unsalable. An artist by training and at heart, he took these leftover fabric and innovated a completely new batik tradition through the creation of 'batik paintings'.
He utilized the wax and dyes of traditional batik making and applied that to his cotton and silk fabrics, after initially sketching the painting in pencil. Then in an elaborate process, he alternated between dye colors and wax placement to achieve nuanced, complex batik paintings.
As she talked, my mind was a whirling mass of thoughts, rewinding to memories of all the past lectures, papers and books that relate to these ideas. It's been a while now, but there was a time that these issues were the primary focus of my days, back when I was undertaking my Masters on Asian Comparative Politics in Washington, DC
As a Tibetan, I have always been fascinated about that pivotal period in the late 1940's to early 1960's in global history; when independent nations such as Tibet lost their independence while simultaneously elsewhere in Asia, previous colonial territories such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Laos, among others, gained their independence.
I am intrigued about the elements, concepts and ways in which nation building occurs. How disparate communities create/invent a national sense of self, particularly through boundaries that may or may not be determined by the people, and with disparate communities that may no longer reflect the indigenous people of that particular region.
All the sudden my interest was raised from the simple appreciation of the art form to total fascination and desire to learn more, more, more about how batik painting was elevated/promoted/manipulated in the construction of the new national identity of Malaysia.
As an artist in the 1930s through the 1960's, Chuah has been compared to Masters of his time - including Paul Gaugin, as Chuah similarly captured the beauty of the Malayan isles and rural Malay beauties in the midst of their daily lives. As Rahel described Chuah's emergence as an artist in this period of intense political and social change in Malaya; his rise to prominence as an artist was closely aligned with Malaysia's independence.
As Simon Soon, co-curator of this exhibit, eloquent explains, batik art was first promoted by the British colonial authorities in their attempts to:
Interestingly, once Malaysia gained its independence in 1957, Chuah Thean Teng was continued to be supported by the new Malaysian government, since his artistic process and subjects reflected and celebrated the diversity of the new Malaysian National state.
Chuah's legacy as a batik art pioneer has resulted in three generation of batik art makers from his family - including his three sons Chuah Siew Teng, Chuah Seow Keng, Choy Siew Kek and his grandsons, Chuah Seong Hooi and Chuah Seong Leng. The Master Chuah and his family have certainly influenced and inspired the many talented batik art makers that followed.
Batik painting reflected the diversity of the new Malaysia - a unique art form developed by a formerly Chinese migrant and now new citizen of the new Malaysian state using the distinctively Malay style of batik making to create a brand new, distinctly Malaysian art form. It came to symbolize the the optimism, harmony and beauty of this diverse new nation.
I don't know whether this is news to you dear readers, but this was a completely new discovery for me! I was so intrigued by how this art work was used by the successive governments to promote their respective nation building efforts.
As Rahel explained this historical and political component to us, my mind raced with thoughts of Benedict Anderson's concepts of 'Imagined Communities', of the constructive discourse, and of the similarities and dissimilarities to be drawn with Indonesia's use of the 'Pancasila' in their own simultaneous nation building process.
And this is precisely why, as often as you can, you should join a museum's art talk or ask a docent to provide some of the historical background, because there is so much that can get lost if you merely stand back and take in art on a simple, superficial level.
Not that there's anything wrong with appreciating art for the sake of its beauty or provocativeness, but when you understand the historical context that art is created in, when you understand the under currents running through a society, a culture, a country, a region... it gives you a broader mental landscape to understand the true significance and impact of art on all of us.
It's not just a pretty, dusty relic hanging on a forgotten wall, it's a living piece of history.
That's why I applaud public art galleries like ILHAM Gallery that thoughtful curate such a remarkable collection and then make art free and accessible for the public.
And that's why even though I find it fascinating, I won't walk you through each piece and each period of batik painting and evolution. Because while I haven't focused much on the contemporary side of batik art, this exhibit brings us right up to present day batik art and artists, some of them displayed in the photos here.
Unfortunately some people mistakenly disregard batik art as a kitschy thing of the past, an old fashioned technique that lacks relevance, or even as a little trite touristic ploy for a tourist to pay 15 ringgit to paint in a neon color on a tiny square canvas.
In fact, this is completely misguided.
This exhibit is a stark reminder that batik can be edgy, it can be provocative, and it can be used as a fine magnifying glass into society's triumphs and foibles.
As you engage with the latest pieces, you come to understand the emerging contemporary art work in light of Malaysian society today. It's an opportunity to interpret the art that is currently being created and to realize how it still serves as a critical medium in reflecting the strong societal and political undercurrents of our present day.
This is something I feel deeply needs to be explored in person. Whether you are a local, or an expat, or a tourist here in KL - it's a chance to step into the very formation of Malaysia and trace its progress through the lens of batik painting.
And if dear reader, you are based overseas, as I know many of you are, then do visit ILHAM Gallery's online site which gives a clear and colorful overview of the exhibit, the key artists and the specific art works at www.ilhamgallery.com/exhibitions/love-me-in-my-batik.
As an parting offering, I leave you this massive installation, entitled "Sehati Sejiwa" by Liew Kung Yu, which means "One Heart One Soul". The artist was invited to create and showcase a contemporary batik art piece. His creation is brightly infused with layers of meaning - it's totally current and very thought provoking.
Enjoy! ♥ Lastly, a special thanks to Ms. Rahel Joseph for her time, passion and commitment to sharing these beautiful works with all of us♥
- "Love Me in My Batik" will be featured at ILHAM Gallery til June 20th. Do hope you get a chance to visit and I'd love to hear what was your favorite piece & thoughts about batik fine art!
- Check http://www.ilhamgallery.com/programmes/2016-feb-june/ to find out what workshops are upcoming at ILHAM!
- ILHAM Gallery is @ Level 3&5, ILHAM Tower, No 8, Jalan Binjai, 50480 KL
- Admission to ILHAM is happily FREE!
- Opening hours are : Tue-Sat (11am-7pm), Sunday (11am-5pm) and its closed on Mondays and public holidays.