Looking at the Malay World Through Textiles – The Azah Aziz Collection – Part 1

‘Alam Melayu’ Map ( courtesy of the Islamic International University website)

When we talk about the Malay World, we often think of the Malays living predominantly in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore who speak Malay and live a Malay based culture, tradition, and lifestyle. What do textiles tell us about the Malay world? Is it a different Malay world than we imagine?

When we look at the map of the Malay world, do we think of the Malay world when we see Flores, Sumba, Maluku and Banjarmasin? What about Visayan, Luzon and Mindanao? The Malay race has also been recorded living in Taiwan and Madagascar.Recently, we had the privilege of accessing a textile collection of a well-known champion of Malay culture, the late Azah Aziz. The bulk of the textile collection is currently at Muzium Seni Asia or Museum of Asian Art.

Whilst the Asian Art Museum is located at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, historically, it began life as a museum in 1955 as the University of Malaya Art Museum in Singapore. The late Royal Professor Dr. Ungku Aziz (who is married to Azah Aziz) as Vice Chancellor expanded the museum after 1963 when Malaysia was separated from Singapore. William Young Willett became the first Museum Director in 1973 and curated the museum collection for the next 10 years. The museum is now home to over 7000 artifacts from Asia including textiles, ceramics, stone sculptures and it claims to have the world’s largest collection of water vessels.

When we first viewed the Azah Aziz textile collection at the museum, the textiles tell a story about how diverse the Malay world is. The Malay world textiles such as batik, songket, songket limar, telepok, keringkam and tenun show how the Malay culture has been deeply connected to the world and other cultural expressions for centuries through textiles. For example, we discovered two outstanding and rare pieces of Indonesian batik by Dutch batik artist Eliza Van Zuylen in the collection, a vibrant Patola cloth of Gujarat, India usually worn by royal and aristocratic families and woven Tenun sarongs with brilliant, deep color palettes and abstract styles and techniques evocative of Rothko paintings.

Textiles have the ability to tell more nuanced stories about a culture. They can confirm or provide alternative narratives, or debunk myths about how people lived and what influenced them. Textiles can provide us the unwritten and the unsaid history. Studying the “language” of textiles through deciphering meanings, symbols, patterns and colour codes enrich our understanding of the past, enlighten the present and give us glimpses of the shape of the future.

We are excited about a new project that requires us to examine the important Azah Aziz textile collection up close, giving us significant insights into the wider Malay world. Azah Aziz and her mother, Azizah Jaafar were pioneers in championing Malay culture and collecting Malay world textiles. Their way of seeing and understanding the Malay World was unique and personal.

The Late Azizah Jaafar
The Late Azah Aziz

In Azah Aziz’s seminal book on Malay costumes “Rupa dan Gaya Busana Melayu”, she had researched and highlighted Malay classical literature that provided lyrical insights on how Malays lived with their textiles and how textiles became indicators of power, rank, nobility, social hierarchy, marital status, gender amongst others. These insights would not have been written in conventional history books and therefore, our knowledge and perception of an ancient world become richer because of her. Her textile collection is a veritable gold mine of knowledge and codes of behaviour on a fascinating Malay world for successive generations to discover and decipher.

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