A diamond in the rough: Kota Bahru

At a glance, Kota Bharu has acquired a feel of a decaying town. The buildings and roads lack upkeep and shine, landscaping is bare and half-hearted and pedestrian pavements are almost non-existent. The city looks like it is stuck in a time warp but without the old charm of an old town. Most of all the streets require a massive clean up.

It is clear that the lack of investment and adequate attention to place making in public spaces have taken its toll on Kota Bharu. However, when we take the time to look more closely into the more hidden private spaces, we discovered there was more than that meets the eye in Kota Bharu. Enterprising Kelantanese make up for the absence of impactful public sector investment in their own way.

To our surprise, the café scene in Kota Bharu is alive and buzzy. Kopi Mesin Heritage is one of the few independent cafes that have been mushrooming in Kota Bharu. When we were there during lunch and in the evening, it was full of people.

The interior is full of interesting old and intriguing photographs of Kota Bharu and the Kelantanese life. Upstairs, led by brightly painted stairs to reflect the Chinese temple colours near by, one can admire sketches and paintings of wayang kulit characters by the co-owner and intriguing selections of vintage items.

The café serves local specialities such as keropok lekor as well as a modified Western menu, and a comprehensive, imaginative drinks list including of course, “kopi mesin”. We were told by the co-owner and founder, Haniza Hassan that the idea for the name came about as the Kelantanese refer to western coffee as “machine coffee”.

Around the corner from the café, there were more surprises. A series of back lanes that have been cleaned up and planted with trees. The back lanes and the walls behind Kopi Mesin Heritage are now freshly transformed with colourful murals and a pleasant landscape of trees.

The murals depict local Kelantan scenes and the familiar faces of Kelantan with a touch of local humour. The famous Kelantanese nasi kerabu biru  (blue herb rice) is a prominent feature, and so is Dato’ Vida, the famously (or infamously) flamboyant local cosmetic entrepreneur. The murals are a result of collaboration between the Kota Bahru council, National Art Gallery and an art collective in Kelantan called Peseni. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves touring the mural backlanes.

Inspired by the café scene, we headed to two café institutions in Kota Bharu – The White House café, a paradoxically humble kopitiam – an old style Chinese café – that serves their signature locally ground coffee with soft, thick toasts slathered with butter and kaya (coconut jam). We found joy in this simple café. For lunch, we decided to go to the second café – the unusually named Din Tokyo. We had a simple lunch of laksam – a refreshing light dish of rice rolls with fish sauce with a sprinkle of mixed herbs and chilli sambal on the side.

I ended with their ginger and quail egg tea, their specialty. Our verdict is that Kota Bharu is a diamond in the rough – underneath the dusty exterior, there are shining gems.   

suryanisenjasuryanisenja@gmail.com

The Batik Block Artisan

 

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We often hear of batiks in Malaysia and imagine them to be hand drawn through the canting technique. In Malaysia, hand made batik designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax by using a metal object called “canting” – it is like a small receptacle that pours out hot wax in small lines instead of paint.

When the wax outlines are done, artists use brushes to paint the dyes within the outlines. The use of brush allows for the creation of shaded and multi-hued designs.

Batik block printing however requires a different skill even though it is still hand made batik. The rhythmic patterns of a batik block can create outstanding batiks – and the art of making a batik block is a skill on its own. Batik block makers are artisans themselves, and often specialize in making batik blocks and not the same artisans who design and make batik textiles.

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A batik block maker, Abdul Ghani Mat was awarded a title of Master Artisan by Kraftangan Malaysia for his creative and highly skilful work in hand tooling copper batik blocks. In our previous blog, we had mentioned that the owner of Ayu Batik in Kelantan has a collection of over 5000 batik blocks dating over several decades, which form an important archive of the creative history of Malaysian batik patterns.

In a block print batik, the canting tool is replaced by a hand tooled copper block that is designed with the patterns or motifs that will be repeated on the cloth to create a piece of batik. Sometimes a wooden stamp is used that has a carved patterned bottom.

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The block is dipped into the wax and printed onto the fabric, which is then dip-dyed. Then the wax will be removed and batik with single color is produced. To create multi-colors and complex batik, waxing with different blocks, dying and de-waxing have to be done many times.

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In Kelantan, the heart of the Malaysian batik industry, we visited a batik block workshop. We were pleasantly surprised to see three industrious young men including the owner, creating intricate copper batik blocks for batik artists and designers in Malaysia. The owner started his own batik block making business after being trained as a block batik artisan himself. The workshop was strategically located in an area with clusters of batik workshops and ateliers including Ruzz Gahara.

According to the enterprising young man, he noticed a constant demand for batik blocks from batik artisans and designers. He decided to open a small workshop of his own and started training batik block makers amongst the youths in the village who were interested. His workshop is a simple hut shaded under a few trees, next to a narrow dirt lane that was a bit too small for a car to go through. The hut was nestled in a small village, tucked away from the main road, the idyllic silence around them only broken once in a while with the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood or stray chickens looking for food.

 

The making of batik blocks requires as much concentration as making the batiks themselves. Using blow torches and a myriad of hand tools, the batik block “boys” painstakingly cut, bend and meld small parts of copper that gradually expand to resemble the full picture of patterns and motifs provided by artists for customized block prints.PHOTO-2020-07-16-16-25-25

Depending on the intricacy of the motifs, one batik block can take up a few days to a few weeks to make and the cost will also depend on the motifs. The batik block young artisans looked up briefly from their work when we went in before focusing once again on bits of copper on their tables. They looked like any teenagers on the streets, wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts – we would not have guessed that they were traditional artisans if we had bumped into them outside the workshop. We asked one of them when he had started making batik blocks, he told us he was 16 when he started. For them, continuing the tradition was a way of life in the village.

 

Suryani Senja

Re-thinking Crafts

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How do we re-think crafts? Do we need to? There are many debates amongst the craft community on how craft should evolve, be perceived or supported in light of rapid changes in our society. Advances in technology, disruption of supply of natural materials, declining demand, low-level appreciation, fewer skilled artisans and the dying heritage of making things by hand are just some challenges highlighted by craft communities.

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The British Council held a Re-thinking Crafts Conference on 6-8 March 2020 in Cebu, Philippines. I had the opportunity to speak on craft in Malaysia, how craft should be integrated into the Malaysian creative industry and why. I share here some highlights from my presentation as well as valuable insights from the craft industry experts who attended the conference.

Malaysia’s craft industry – a snapshot

Malaysia’s craft industry generates estimated USD170 million revenue annually (from recent Kraftangan Malaysia data). Craft is a part of Malaysia’s growing creative industry, which was estimated to be USD6 billion in 2015 (UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Report 2018). Kraftangan Malaysia keeps track of registered artisans and craft businesses in Malaysia. As a snapshot on our craft industry, we estimate that there are 11,296 craft workers, 5817 craft businesses, 56 master artisans (Adiguru) and 6 national craft icons (Tokoh Kraf Negara).

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A policy and structural gap in Malaysia’s creative industry

Craft is part of Malaysia’s creative industry and the national creative industry policy (the last one dated 2008) applies to craft. However, there is a gap in the way the ministries are structured in Malaysia for the creative industry. Inexplicably, several important Malaysian creative industries including craft, visual art, fashion, music and performing arts are under the authority of Ministry of Tourism, Art, Culture and Heritage.

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The creative economy policy on the other hand, is crafted by another Ministry – the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, which is in charge of other different parts of the Malaysian creative industry: telecommunications, film, publishing, advertising, design and creative digital industry.

As a result of this separation, craft is in danger of being linked to low value tourism merchandise or as a byproduct of tourism, or narrowly perceived as a cultural heritage for preservation that is separated from design. UNCTAD Creative Economy Report 2018 cites Malaysia’s highest creative exports as design items – and creative exports have increased from USD1.9 billion in 2004 to USD 6 billion in 2008. Tellingly, craft is not deemed in the report as design items although more and more, categories of Malaysian crafts can certainly qualify as design items, especially in the area of fashion and interiors.

 

The Malaysian creative economy policy interventions and incentives have been criticized to refer narrowly to the creative digital industry, linking it to technology and e-commerce. This is inevitable when the Ministry in charge of creative policy is not in charge of the other substantial parts of the creative industry. There appears to be minimal coordination to integrate all the creative industries including craft under one umbrella body to enable a strong, integrated approach to grow the Malaysian creative industry (see “Making Creative Industries Policy: The Malaysian Case by Thomas Barker and Lee Yuen Beng). This gap means Malaysia has not adequately or at all addressed wider structural issues for the creative industry that could optimize and energize the creative industry including craft as a whole. This holistic approach includes strengthening the ecosystem and upgrading cultural infrastructure, integrating creative education and raising public awareness.

My presentation in Cebu highlighted that the Malaysian craft industry will benefit greatly from a disruption of innovation, creativity and sustainability. This is why our creative industry is important enough to be developed under a single Ministry for Creative Industry or a focused, integrated body to harness Malaysia’s creative industry to its full potential.

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Craft when engaged with visual arts, architecture, design, film and creative technology will increase the value of craft and expand its audience. Brands like Fern, Bikin Studio, Dapo, Bendang Studio, Batik Tektura and Ruzz Gaharaare some of the Malaysian made brands based on traditional craftsmanship but are design or architecture led.

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The creative industry on the other hand, will be enriched by craft through adding character, depth, authenticity and diversity. These are some recent examples: Malaysia’s short animated film based on traditional batik drawing “The Batik Girl” won international awards in 2018 in Japan and in 2019 in Chile. Google Arts & Culture Project has uploaded the first 100 Malaysian crafts on its online Museum this year in 2020 in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia, signaling the first global footprint of Malaysian crafts to the world. Malaysia’s architecture pavilion “Woven Matness” in Hong Kong’s Urban Design Biennale in December 2019 was highlighted for its creativity using traditional woven mats and QR code technology woven into the mats to tell the story of Malaysian weavers, also in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia.

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Contemporary art has shown resurgence in utilizing craft as a medium for contemporary expression of art – Yee Ii-Lann, a Malaysian artist from Sabah undertook to create an artwork in the form of a huge mural woven like a traditional mat commissioned by the Singapore’s National Art Gallery, in collaboration with Sabahan traditional weavers from the Bajau community.

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As has been shown above, craft can drive innovation, influencing amongst others, the aesthetic and structural approach to film, architecture and visual arts.

Where should craft be? Craft as a philosophy of life

Although craft should benefit from being in the creative industry, its policy and incentives, craft should not necessarily be expected to be a mass industry. A presentation from Adi Nugraha, a professor and designer from Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia rightly spoke of craft first and foremost as a life philosophy that bestows satisfaction, happiness and contentment to the maker. Craft also connects us to nature. Craft is highly relevant in our contemporary modern life because it provides the antidote to the fast paced, materialistic, modern lifestyle’s bad side effects – stress, greed, unsustainable use of nature.

Craft industry can present an alternative model for an industry – as its value is not purely economic but in addition, it improves our quality of life and the way we think and live, and place importance on preserving local communities.

Instead of the conventional economic push to “scale up” for small and medium industries, craft can remain slow and small, yet open and connected through linking craft communities via global communication and logistical networks. The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)is worth studying as a way forward for craft. By being connected, craft need not be confined to “low value, conventional crafts” where artisans are paid very little for each handmade item despite the creativity involved, time spent and skills used.

How can craft assert its value? Crafts led by or interpreted through art and design should readily be acknowledged as categories of crafts of high value – design crafts. Craft interpreted through visual art is already presented as high value art using the medium of craft. Art and design have become the dominant new language for expression in current times, so should craft.

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Works created by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen when explained with the contemporary medium could add value. Through high quality storytelling via video and writing made viral through social media, craft can acquire a bigger audience, higher appreciation, and subsequently, attain higher value without having to necessarily scale up production.

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Isn’t it time we re-think and re-present crafts as a vital way of living a community based, ecologically sustainable life but communicated globally to remain relevant?

Kite Making and the Wau Maker from Kelantan

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Did you know that there are many types of traditional kites in Malaysia? The famous “Wau” or traditional kites are mostly made in and associated with Kelantan. The kites are made of split bamboo and coloured paper with tassels and strings. The art of making kites is not easy. The kites need to be of a certain composition, structure and weight, and made of specific materials so they can fly well. The span of a wau can go up to 12 feet from nose to tail, yet it can still fly well. Wau Bulan, the traditional, crescent moon shaped kite from Kelantan is well known for its ability to be stable and fly well.

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The artistic element of a wau, or its beauty is as important as its function. The images on a wau and its shape reflect its origins and surrounding, whilst the coloured papers of a wau are meticulously cut and pasted together in multi-layers to create a sense of harmony in colours and reflect the light as a wau flies in the sky. Often, a wau competition awards points for both its beauty when it is on the ground, and its function when it is flying in the sky.

The name “Wau” apparently came from the Arabic letter, which resembles the shape of the kite. However, it is also said that the name Wau comes from the sound the kite makes – a low droning repetitive sound from the string when it is moved from side to side or when it moves in the wind.

In Malaysia, the kites have been in use for centuries. Farmers have been known to use the kites as scarecrows in the paddy fields as well as to lull their babies to sleep with the repetitive, droning sounds. The legendary Wau Bulan apparently was created during the Srivijaya Empire (from as early as the 7th century). According to the legend, a young prince Dewa Muda used the framework of the kite to map territories that he will then conquer and later illustrate on the map. As his territories grow, the kite illustrations will too.

Other types of Wau include “Wau Dodo Helang”, “Wau Kebayak”, “Wau Daun”, “Wau Kikik”, “Wau Merak”, “Wau Puyuh”, “Wau Kapal”, “Wau Seri Bulan”, “Wau Helang”, “Wau Kangkang”, and the “Wau Seri Negeri”. Although beauty is important, to the Wau enthusiast, the most important factor to determine a good wau is actually the sound or ‘dengung’ that resonates from the Wau when it is high up in the air flying against the strong winds.

The art of making kites is still alive in Malaysia, though less people play kites as a past time or grow up flying kites compared to before. If we stop to think, the traditional wau has entered our visual vocabulary for a long time. MAS airline uses the Wau as a brand image. The iconic shape of “Wau Kucing” appears on the tail of each plane of Malaysia’s national airline. Pak Sapie, the late master wau maker from Kelantan was prominently featured in a Visit Malaysia Year poster. The popular Johor International Kite Festival is a highlight every year for Malaysians and tourists.

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We visited a Wau maker recently in Kelantan – the wau maker inherited his special skills from his father, who was a famous Adiguru or master Wau Maker, none other than Pak Sapie.  Pak Sapie was a master kite-maker who innovated a way to make foldable kites so that they can be collapsed into smaller pieces for better transport.

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The wau maker now makes kites to order from his workshop along Pantai Cahaya Bulan in Kelantan. He makes a wide variety of traditional kites by hand. He works with his wife, who designs the kites. Although the demand for kites has lessened, some of his biggest customers come from Johor or people who want to compete and participate in the Johor International Kite Festival every year.

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People also order kites for ornaments and souvenirs. He laments that not many young people play with kites anymore although he still gets students to come to his workshop to make, then go out to the beach or nearby open spaces to play kites. The thought of getting more young people being interested in the art of making and playing kites brings a big smile to his face: “Our tradition is important, and must not be lost. The young people must carry on our tradition for us, that is why I am still making kites”.

 

The Remaking of a National Craft Retail Space

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Karyaneka’s look before the remodelling

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What makes a craft retail space attractive to a customer? What do people look for when they want to buy crafts? How can we tell the story of crafts in a shop? What can a national craft retail store offer that no other store can offer? These are some of the questions that went through my mind when re-thinking the concept of the national craft retail store, Karyaneka.

Karyaneka is the retail arm of Kraftangan Malaysia, the national handicraft development corporation of Malaysia. Karyaneka is tasked with promoting and marketing our local artisans and their crafts through its retail outlets. There are four major craft complexes in the country namely in KL, Langkawi, Melaka and Johor whilst other smaller outlets are in selective airports and other cities.

 

Every year during National Craft Day, hundreds of artisans from all over Malaysia set up booths at Kompleks Kraf KL, at Jalan Conlay, KL, which is where Kraftangan Malaysia is headquartered and Karyaneka flagship store is located . This year was supposed to be a special National Craft Day as it is Visit Malaysia Year 2020. Karyaneka was asked to present a special display of craft for visitors. It was an opportunity to refresh Karyaneka’s flagship store.

Branding Craft – What is in a Name?

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I spent some time with Karyaneka team, designer Imaya Wong  to brainstorm and re-conceptualise Karyaneka as brand that is strong on the heritage of crafts but contemporary in display and presentation.

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I felt in our discussions that Karyaneka had very strong elements residing within its own name: “Karya” could represent artistic creations of crafts by highly skilled artisans with high artistic value;  “Aneka” could represent the diversity of Malaysian crafts and how versatile Malaysian crafts from a variety of natural materials can be used in our everyday life. Finally “Neka” could represent designer crafts that have evolved from traditional crafts through the language of contemporary designs.

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Storytelling Craft

What would be unique about Karyaneka that you could not get anywhere else? I strongly felt that as a national craft retail store, Karyaneka could offer uniquely featured products by virtue of access to master crafts persons and artisan communities from all over Malaysia including from remote parts of the country.

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Malaysia’s heritage and knowledge of crafts are being kept alive by our unique Adigurus, a selection of master craftspersons from all over Malaysia who have been awarded the title “Adiguru” by Kraftangan to acknowledge their superior craftsmanship.

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In addition, Kraftangan’s artisan community outreach is far and wide – they have access to almost 6000 artisans and artisan entrepreneurs including in rural and remote areas.

 

With these elements in mind, the design team re-conceptualized a dedicated space in Karyaneka in time for National Craft Day. The newly designed space created sections based on Karya, Aneka and Neka. To distinguish Karyaneka from the ordinary craft stores, we created a special mini exhibition space displaying a selection of Adiguru crafts, highlighting the personal story of each Adiguru.

Storytelling is vital for the national craft retail store as people still have a relatively low level of awareness on Malaysian crafts. An engagement with customers through storytelling often brings about a higher level of awareness and a real appreciation of the value of crafts. With this in mind, the visitors to the new Karyaneka section was greeted by a write up on the introduction to Malaysian crafts, the Adiguru exhibition write ups and each section of Karyaneka had descriptions of crafts and the featured craft brands.

 

The story of Malaysian craft continues in the Neka section with a crop of new designers who have used a different design language to interpret traditional crafts – these stories need to be told. We featured craft designs by Bendang Studio, Studio Bikin, Batik Tektura, Tanoti House, Ruzz Gahara, Dapo and Muni amongst others to showcase how Malaysian designers are paving the way for traditional crafts to evolve into innovative design items.

 

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Craft, Architecture and Technology

In addition, the two latest initiatives by Kraftangan Malaysia to document and highlight Malaysian crafts internationally were displayed in Karyaneka. These initiatives highlight the important role with Kraftangan and Karyaneka of championing and bringing Malaysian crafts to the world. The following projects also indicate how craft can firmly be part of and enrich the Malaysian creative industry ecosystem.IMG_7284

First, the Google Arts & Culture Project became a reality when Kraftangan Malaysia became the first cultural institution in Malaysia to be Google’s partner. On 20th February 2020, the first 100 craft images of Malaysia were uploaded on Google online museum, creating the first global footprint of Malaysian crafts online. This means that Malaysian crafts are now accessible for study, research, reference and inspiration for the global online community.

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The second project involved collaboration between craft, architecture and digital technology for a biennale in Hong Kong. An installation made of hand woven traditional mats by artisans in Terengganu was designed and built to display as an architecture pavilion.

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The mats included a QR code woven into the mats as motifs that would enable the international audience to scan and discover the story of Malaysian weavers through a website. This pavilion called “Woven Matness” was displayed at the “2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture” in Hong Kong from December 2019. Malaysian architect Shin Tseng and his creative partners, Digital Creative Director Fadil Fuad of C27 and Designer Wen Yee Kok of Studio Wen teamed up with Kraftangan Malaysia who sourced the traditional colorful “Daun Mengkuang” (screw pine leaves) mats from artisans in the east coast state of Terengganu, Malaysia. Fadil designed the QR code that would be woven into plain, natural colored mats.

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The images of the exhibition in Hong Kong and the creative process for the design of the pavilion were put up on National Craft Day and remains to be exhibited in Karyaneka.

Craft is Instagrammable

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Finally, in the age of social media, what would attract crowds to engage in a craft store? Instagrammable spaces of course! Imaya designed a few areas in Karyaneka that highlight craft products as Instagram friendly shots.

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These “instagrammable” spaces became a big hit during National Craft Day especially the ones featuring Ranee Artisan’s colourful basket trays made of recycled standing fan covers and hand woven by Long House communities in Sarawak, pop and techno colored mats on various walls woven by Bajau Laut communities on islands in Sabah and an area of hanging baskets that came from all over Malaysia.

Re-thinking Craft Retail Space

Although we still have a long way to go to revive Malaysian crafts and make our artisans known nationally and internationally, the re-making of Karyaneka retail space opened up the space for re-thinking, re-learning and representing our crafts.  Malaysians and non-Malaysians are starting to engage with our national, living heritage of crafts differently, simply because we made an effort by telling the story of craft through the new mediums of art, design and technology.

A Journey Into Tibetan Culture and Meeting the Artisans of Norbulingka Institute, Dharamshala, India.

 

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The Tibetan culture is a unique culture grounded on Tibetan Buddhism.

The Norbulingka Institute is a Tibetan cultural institute set up in 1995 in Dharamshala, India to help preserve Tibetan art and culture, and create jobs for Tibetans through its social enterprises. We had the opportunity to experience Tibetan culture in this beautifully designed cultural space. A Japanese architect designed Norbulingka Institute, and the design is based on and is inspired by the summer palace with the same name, Norbulingka, in Tibet. Norbulingka is a lovely sample of Tibetan architecture, colourful, with intricate carvings, surrounded by pleasing gardens and ponds.

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Norbulingka introduced a holistic experience in Tibetan Buddhist civilization and culture through authentic Tibetan craft, spiritual works of art, Tibetan food and hospitality. In the midst of it all, a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple in Norbulingka displays the craftsmanship of Norbulingka artisans through an exquisite gigantic Thangka appliqué art hangings and carvings.

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At the Institute, one can find a series of artisan studios and workshops arranged based on materials such as wood and metal. In each workshop, visitors can meet the artisans, learn about the materials and process of making each craft as well as learn the meaning of each craft in Tibetan culture.

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The most interesting workshop or studio we visited was the Thangka art painting studio at the Norbulingka. Thangka is a Tibetan scroll painting of intricate images of deities from Tibetan Buddhism on canvas that are coloured with natural dyes and minerals.

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According to the Norbulingka Institute, the Thangka painting is a sacred art traced back to the 7th century in Nepal that evolved into several schools of paintings. Thangka paintings are not only aesthetic objects but they are used by Tibetans to aid meditation by strengthening concentration on a particular Buddhist deity.

On our visit to the Thangka art studio at Norbulingka, we were able to watch artisans mix the colours from natural materials like saffron and lapis lazuli and the Thangka artists create outlines and paint.

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The Norbulingka website details out the process of creating a Thangka that can take up to six weeks per Thangka: “To make a thangka, first a piece of canvas is stitched onto a wooden frame. It is prepared with a mixture of chalk, gesso, and base pigment, and rubbed smooth with a glass until the texture of the cloth is no longer apparent. The outline of the deity is sketched in pencil onto the canvas using iconographic grids, and then outlined in black ink.

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Powders composed of crushed mineral and vegetable pigments are mixed with water and adhesive to create paint. Some of the elements used are quite precious, such as lapis lazuli for dark blue. Landscape elements are blocked in and shading is applied using both wet and dry brush techniques. Finally, a pure gold paint is added, and the thangka is framed in a precious brocade boarder. A standard Thangka in our collection, which is about 18 x 12 in takes an artist about six weeks to complete.”

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Our visit to Norbulingka impressed upon us the importance of how to preserve art, heritage and culture more meaningfully and comprehensively through incorporating architecture, design, food, and workshops.

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In addition to that, Norbulingka has succeeded in incorporating concepts of sustainability and community elements through promoting and preserving an authentic culture by creating social enterprises and programs that benefit Tibetans.

 

They run a craft shop, craft workshops and three guesthouses with Tibetan themes incorporating handmade Tibetan crafts and provide jobs to Tibetans. We do have a lot to learn from other cultures, and this visit has opened our eyes on many different ways to preserve culture, arts and heritage.

Born with a Silver Spoon – The Story of the Silver Collection of Senijari

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I had always wanted to create a Senijari collection of luxury crafts from my home state, Kelantan, in the north of Malaysia. Kelantan silver is renowned for its intricacy of design and superior workmanship. Silversmiths use two kinds of techniques – filigree and repousse. Kelantan silversmithing is getting more rare as its use of machinery is limited – the craft is still done mainly by hand.

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Remember our earlier encounter with a silver artisan, “Pok Wi” who has been a silversmith for 40 years? When we finally met Pok Wi ( link to our earlier post) earlier this year, it was to create Senijari’s first prototype for a collection of bespoke silver jewellery.

I first thought up of jewellery in the shape of a spoon and other implements because of a necklace I have. The necklace was from the legendary Collette. Colette was a lifestyle, design store of curated fashion and accessories in Paris. It was a fashion favourite that unfortunately has closed down recently. They had a wonderful section that featured jewellery designers. I was particularly taken by two necklaces I saw there – one had a spoon as a pendant and the other a fork. Both had large stones stuck on them that were made to look like each had scooped up a large diamond. They were witty, fun and cool. I had thought to myself, these pendants would look great done in Malaysian silver, with a local twist.

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Pok Wi turned an idea that crossed my mind several years ago into reality today. The initial Senijari collection has two pendants, Born With a Silver Spoon and Ukir Bulan (Crafted Moon) – Both are beautifully hand carved with traditional motifs from Kelantan by Pok Wi and his artisans. In addition, the collection has a series of small silver charms for pendants or bracelets that reflect Kelantan iconic culture – the Keris, the Wau Bulan and the Wayang Kulit.

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The idea of a silver spoon is historically interesting in Kelantan royal history – royal Malay families and at times, non-royal ones have a tradition of spooning with a silver spoon a bit of salt and then honey to a new born after 40 days – to initiate the baby into the world – and perhaps its first taste of its ups and downs symbolized by the salty and the sweet taste of life!

 

 

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This collection will be the beginning of unearthing designs and motifs based on the unique Kelantanese culture and history, and the start of collaboration with talented Kelantanese artisans. We hope to tell many more Kelantan stories through our crafts. This is only the first chapter of the Kelantan story.

The Future of Craft – the Young Artisans of National Craft Institute (Institut Kraf Negara), Kuala Lumpur.

 

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In a green, peaceful oasis just a few kilometres from the KL city centre, there was a big secret that hardly anyone from the creative industry knew about – until now. Institut Kraf Negara (IKN), or the National Craft Institute is a campus of 250 students studying six of Malaysia’s crafts under the patronage of Kraftangan Malaysia – textile weaving, batik making, basketry, wood carving, ceramics and jewellery and metalsmithing.

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For 3 years, these students learn craftsmanship and skills that are vital towards preserving our culture and heritage – they are an important part of Malaysia’s future of crafts.

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The founder of Senijari who is also the current Chairwoman of Kraftangan Malaysia visited the IKN campus recently to chair a roundtable discussion amongst a selection of Malaysian’s creative industry professionals from architecture, fashion, film, interior design and branding agency. The British Council facilitated the discussion as part of their Craft Futures program in the region.

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The creative professionals were surprised to find a craft school in Kuala Lumpur with students from all over Malaysia who showed skills and passion in continuing Malaysia’s craft heritage. They were suitably impressed, and excited at this opportunity to create meaningful collaborations with the young, skilled and creative talents of IKN who are like undiscovered gems.

Amongst others, participants such as Fashion designer Melinda Looi, Lina Tan of Red Films, Lillian Tay, the President of the Malaysian Architecture Association, architects and furniture designer duo Farah and Adela of Bikin Studio and William Harald Wong, owner of WHW Associates, a design agency provided critical feedback on how to integrate the IKN students closer to the creative industry in Malaysia. It is now critical to inject fresh innovation and new life in Malaysian crafts and the other creative industries as well as to provide a clearer career path development for our future artisans.

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The students come from IKN come from all over Malaysia, and we were delighted to speak to young women who were defying gender stereotypes in the departments of metalsmithing and wood carving – a very physically challenging area of crafts. We spoke to a ceramic student from Sabah who spoke of her reason for studying the craft of ceramics – simply a keen interest in the craft.

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Students from Sabah and Sarawak were also doing basketry as they learnt the craft from young and also learnt to love the craft. In the batik department, a third year student was producing an intricate “canting halus” piece of batik with dedication, and was beaming with pride when Melinda Looi admired her work and encouraged her to continue creating beautiful pieces of batik.

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It was refreshing to be among students who look at Malaysian crafts as their future. IKN is doing important work, and now will need even more support from the creative industry, the Ministries and policy makers so that their graduates survive and thrive in the global creative industry.

IKN’s convocation is coming up on the 13th of November, and as we are at the threshold of 2020, we see the unique potential of IKN to be one of the premier creative hubs in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia with our young artisans leading the way. In an exciting development, IKN is planning to open up the campus to the public with their graduate shows and new short courses. The creative industry is already talking about potential collaborations on internships, creative projects and even a reality TV craft & fashion show. The future of craft suddenly looks brighter.

 

 

 

China, Langkasuka and the textile world in Kelantan

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In researching motifs for textiles and jewellery, I discovered fascinating historical links between the Chinese, the ancient Langkasuka kingdom in Pattani and Kelantan.

Chinese sea trade with the Malay World began as early as the fifth century, stimulated by demand for luxury goods by the Chinese royal courts. It has been reported that spices, turtle eggs, perfumed woods, ivory and tortoise shell are some of the coveted items by the Chinese nobility. The Chinese apparently influenced textiles in the Malay World including Kelantan as Chinese envoys brought silk, which influenced the use of silk by royals in Malay palaces. One prominent Malay kingdom mentioned in Chinese history is “Chi Tu” or the Red Earth Land (Tanah Merah), believed to be interior of Kelantan. Chi Tu guo ji, an account written by Sui Dynasty envoys after a visit to Chi tu in 606-10 CE describes highly organized and wealthy royal court, where the Chinese envoy was offered a gold “hibiscus” crown and camphor. Nearby, the coastal kingdom of Langkasuka, located near Patani (south of Thailand) was a centre for Malay culture due to its proximity to the states of Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, where songket weaving is predominant. The culture of weaving was prevalent in the Langkasuka courts. (Note: this paragraph is extracted from “Songket Revolution”, written by Noor Azlina Yunus, published by Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, 2008).

On a recent trip to Kelantan, a visit to Rumah Gahara, the batik workshop for Ruzz Gahara brand brought these historical links to the fore once again. In the midst of designing batik motifs that would be distinctive to Ruzz Gahara’s Kelantanese roots, they unearthed ancient motifs that came from or influenced by the Langkasuka kingdom and applied these intricate, historical motifs on batik.

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Ruzz Gahara’s batik blocks were very different and unique in their intricacy. When I spoke to a researcher and culture specialist from the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer. The motifs did not have a story. By linking and reminding people about their history to ancient Langkasuka and Kelantan’s history, the Ruzz Gahara motifs have come to life with a colourful, vibrant history.

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The silk, organza silk, cotton silk used by Ruzz Gahara for its collection link it further to the history of silk in this region – China. Innovation does come from history after all, and I thank Ruzz Gahara for being one of the champions of history in preserving our heritage, culture and craft.

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We shall continue unearthing Malaysia’s fascinating historical links through its textile and material culture. Stay with us!

East Coast of Malaysia : The Cultural and Craft Hub

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Malaysians are fortunate that we still live close to our culture, traditions and craft. Our culture has provided us beautiful and useful objects as well as a sense of community and belonging to a distinct and rich culture. The East coast of Malaysia namely the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang are particularly known for their textile culture. Batik, songket, tenun and telepuk are some of the known textiles that are still made and designed by hand either on the loom or in the case of batik, with the wax resist and dye along with brushing technique.  Other major crafts in the East Coast of Malaysia include wood-carving, silver-smithing, copper and the art of weaving mats from rattan or pandan leaves.

On a trip to the Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur (East Coast Craft Festival) recently, Senijari’s founder and creative director discovered that our artisans remain committed to their craft and that craft culture is alive and well. However, the outside world seems unaware of our heritage, or at least knows little about them. We need to find creative ways to tell our craft and artisan stories better and broadcast them to the wider world so that more know about our wonderful heritage of handicrafts.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting two artisans who were given the award of “Adiguru 2018”. The Adiguru is an award by Kraftangan Malaysia that recognizes the mastery of craft by master artisans who can also teach their craft. The master artisan who is awarded the Adiguru title receives a cash prize and a monthly stipend for a fixed period of time.

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Pak Non, the Master Wau maker was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for creating the unique 5-layer carved motifs for traditional kites based on the Wau Kelantan – most kites are made with only 3 layers of carved motifs on coloured paper. Pak Non, who is passionate about his Wau craft, cites nature, especially the surrounding paddy fields as his inspiration.

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Even though he makes the Wau Kelantan, he actually resides in Kedah and goes for kite flying competitions with his kite creations. He says that the competition for the best traditional kites is based on how the kite looks on the ground and how high the kite can fly – so the Wau is assessed both on its physical beauty on earth as well as its technical prowess in the sky.

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Cik Kalsom, a petite and diminutive mat weaver from Terengganu is passionate about and proud of her masterful skills. She was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for her mastery of weaving mats and other products using the intricate and complex “kelerai” technique, with soft pandan leaves.

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This technique according to her is backbreaking and not easy to learn. She laments that the younger generation is not as patient when learning, and usually end up adopting easier techniques of weaving that are not as intricate as the “kelerai” technique.

She continues to weave despite her back aches, as she says that it is reward enough when she sees a piece of mat of complex patterns completed, the sense of accomplishment and pride at her skill motivates to once again continue.

The Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur in Kelantan and Terengganu displayed some of the best artisans and their work in batik, songket, wood carving, silver and copper.

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We visited batik workshops in Kelantan that were highlighted for their authentic and traditional batik block print and wax resist techniques. One workshop, Ayu Batik, was remarkable for their environmentally friendly approach by recycling water used to wash the dye off the batik textiles as well as recycling the wax used for the batik dyeing and colouring process.

 

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Ayu Batik has an incredible collection over 5000 batik block prints dated from the 60’s, some of which are meticulously restored and showcased. Its legacy continues with the owner and his son who continues designing with the authentic block print technique for batik.

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In Terengganu, the wood carving association at Desa Ukiran Kayu in Besut presented their impressive skills in traditional wood carving in a beautiful gallery at the Desa Ukiran Kayu.

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It was eye opening to meet the Master Malay Wood Carver Norhaiza Noordin (norhaizanoordin.wordpress.com). He has used his talents not only for wood carving, but he has created a stunning private art space and a residency for wood carving students that has to be experienced called Bakawali in Kg. Raja, Besut,Terengganu.

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After the visit to the East Coast, we have no doubt that craft and the mastery of craft in Malaysia are alive and well. Now we just need to tell the world about them.