How batik built Malaysia

lifestyle March 14, 2016 01:00

By Sheela Chandran
The Star
Asi

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National identity was reforged around culture, as seen in the exhibition “Love Me in My Batik”



For centuries people from all walks of life – ranging from kings to commoners to religious figures – have worn batik. Though simple in its latticework prints, the material dates back to the 13th century in Egypt, India, China and Japan.
As one of the most widely known traditional crafts in Malaysia’s Nusantara archipelago, the textile has seen several transformations in design and in techniques – from wooden blocks to wax and copper blocks.
In pre-independence Malaysia, the popularity of the humble textile soared when China-born, Penang-based artist Chuah Thean Teng took an ingenious step forward in 1953 with his paintings made with batik techniques.
Chuah, who made his international mark with a British-government-supported exhibition in London in 1959, accorded batik painting the status of fine art, and most importantly, he added a Malayan identity to his work.
To experience the story of Chuah’s career and the visual sensuality behind batik in fine art, the exhibition “Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond” at the Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is a must-visit. Gallery director Rahel Joseph and writer Simon Soon are the curators.
The Ilham gallery, which opened last August, previously hosted the show “Picturing the Nation”, featuring works by the late portraitist Hoessein Enas. Now there’s another exhibition merging art and history.
 “Love Me in My Batik” spans 1952 to 2016 in examining how the emergence of batik painting six decades ago was, in many ways, supported by the system of colonial patronage. There are two intersecting stories – the emergence of batik painting in the 1950s and the state’s promotional push of batik to become a popular cultural phenomenon from the 1960s onwards. 
The exhibition surveys the broader entanglements in the search for a localised artistic and creative vision, the desire for a national identity, and the transformation of traditional art forms to reflect modern aspirations.
“Paintings from the 1950s and 1960s depict everyday activities, such as village life, fishermen, rubber-tappers and construction work, all seen to represent the spirit of the land and nationhood,” says Rahel.
Apart from Chuah, the show also has works from early masters such as Tay Mo-Leong, Chuah Seow Keng and Khalil Ibrahim. From the 1970s, Rahel notes, batik paintings moved in a new direction, with artists pushing techniques towards abstract composition, integrating local traditional decorative and design principles and motifs from Islam and the region. Although the selected contemporary artwork isn’t necessarily painting-based, the show features the use of batik as technique, process or material. It also highlights a handful of recent pieces from Indonesia. Artists Liew Kung Yu and Yee I-Lann give the show a modern-day spin, with state-of-the-nation commentaries.
The show’s 70 works were obtained from sources including the National Visual Arts Gallery, Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Muzium Dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah and private collections.
A special showcase of modern batik designs from the 1960s to ’80s, donated by heritage advocate Raja Fuziah to the Department of Museums Malaysia, is one of the exhibition highlights.
Other pieces not to be missed are Chuah’s “Perairan Pulau Pinang” and “Festival Day”, Tay’s “Rubber Trees”, Khalil’s “Kolaj”, Yee’s “Orang Besar” series and Liew’s “Sehati Sejiwa”.
“There is also a selection of works by some early women artists, including Fatimah Chik’s ‘Rentak Nusantara’, Ida Ruth Talalla’s ‘Sinar Suria’ and Grace Selvanayagam’s ‘Untitled’,” says Rahel.
While the exhibition covers subjects ranging from figurative forms and village life to abstract work, there is a section that packs in the sensual pieces, including Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s “Youth Embarbed” and Lee Kian Seng’s “Ying-Yang” series.
The title of the exhibition is catchy. Rahel says it’s the title of a sexy 1968 collage-batik by Joseph Tan, a commentary on the cultural frenzy batik inspired as Malaysia searched for an art form that suited its modern identity.
“In the late 1960s and early ’70s there was a great push by the authorities towards the promotion of batik,” Rahel says. “We wanted to reference Tan’s satirical commentary on how batik was being embraced in popular culture in the exhibition.”