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

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”.

 

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!