China, Langkasuka and the textile world in Kelantan



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.



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the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer.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.




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.




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


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.


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.



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.




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.


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.




It was eye opening to meet the Master Malay Wood Carver Norhaiza Noordin ( 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.  

The Marriage of Crafts – Behind the scenes of Senijari’s Rattan & Songket Clutch Collection


When Senijari started out, it was with the firm belief that crafts can be enhanced by design innovation. One of the ways we innovate or refresh our crafts is by combining different materials together.Our first bag collection combined Italian leather and Songket, inspired by the fine Italian craftsmanship and our intricate Songket textiles from Kelantan and Terengganu.







Senijari’s Rattan and Songket Clutch Collection is inspired by what Malaysian artisans in Sarawak could do, coupled with thoughtful research and design. When Senijari was working with Tanoti weavers in Kuching Sarawak, we came across a university project that Tanoti was involved in with UNIMAS in Sarawak. The project explored working with the “souls of the tropical rainforest”, namely the Penan people who weave and dye rattan vines by hand.




How are the bags made from rattan vines? The process is very time-consuming and requires patience and dedication. The rattan would first be hand harvested and naturally dyed. The black dye is from boiling the splits in the leaves of “Kemawah” (Daun Kemawah) and then buried in mud overnight. The clutch will then be completely plaited by hand.  The artisans are mostly from two villages in Long Kawah and Long Meraan in Ulu Sg.Tutoh situated in the highlands of Sarawak. Once the clutches are ready, they are transported by hand to Kuching.





In Kuching, the Songket weavers at Tanoti would have prepared the silk and metallic threads to weave the five motifs for the Senijari Rattan & Songket Collection – Lotus, Lawi Ayam, Angel Wings, Blossom and Humming Bird. These motifs were beforehand sketched and designed by Senijari, and the positioning of the motif on the clutches as well as their measurements and colour combinations were determined by Senijari to achieve the distinctive look and style that Senijari’s brand is known for.




These motifs are woven as Songket on the handloom with a silk background before stitching them on the handmade rattan clutches.


The result will be a marriage of two distinctive crafts that are made purely by hand, traditional but infused with a contemporary style and design through the design re-imagination of motifs, colour, measurements and composition as well as finishing. The Rattan & Songket is a true labour of love and a marriage of crafts inspired by our artisans.



Galeri Tenun Johor – The Launch and Revival of Weaving Gallery in Johor


In January this year, we dedicated a blog to Johor’s Kain Tenun Muar and the setting up of a weaving gallery in Johor. 10 months later, in 18 November 2018, Galeri Tenun Johor opened its doors. It is situated within the “Kompleks Warisan Sultan Abu Bakar” (The Heritage Complex of Sultan Abu Bakar) and was launched yesterday by the the  Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.


The gallery has revived the historical Rumah Tenun Johor, the first weaving centre that was initiated by Tengku Ampuan Mariam, the eldest daughter of Sultan Abu Bakar in 1946, and administered by Tok Ambak, a prominent figure of the Johor’s women’s association.  The Heritage Complex includes the Johor weaving gallery, an art gallery, a documentation center and a number of cafes serving Johor food.



The famous “goreng pisang Mawar” or Johor style crispy banana fritters is also situated within this complex. Right across, the historical craft center of JARO, which promotes crafts made by the disabled, is undergoing renovations, and will also be re-opened soon.

Galeri Tenun Johor has been set up not only to display the heritage of Malay textiles and Johor’s history of textiles. More importantly, it aims to revive the weaving heritage in Johor by installing and training new weavers at the center, and it actively promotes innovation in Songket.


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The gallery showcases not only old textiles from the region, but newly woven cloths in the style of Kain Tenun Muar as well as 10 new songket motifs that were designed specifically for Johor.Among them are Songket designed for the royal family of Johor such as Songket Johor Jauhar and Songket Johor Medini Songket Johor Maharani, two types of Songket Tunku Mahkota Johor and Songket Johor Tanjung Puteri.  Other designs were created specially for the people of Johor, using Johor-inspired motifs of flowers, herbs and spices. They are Songket Tenun Johor, Songket Johor Tanjung Piai,  Songket Johor Mayang Selida and Tenun Johor Berbunga Renek.







The textiles are displayed with interesting information on the motifs. There are also informative panels in the gallery on the history of Malay textiles, the process of producing hand woven textiles using the traditional techniques and the design combinations and inspiration that made up the motifs of Songket Johor.


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The handlooms for different types of textiles as well as accessories, which are usually worn with Malay costumes, are displayed in the upper gallery. A video of Johor Malay dance like zapin with dancers in traditional costumes livened up the gallery, showing how the Malay community wears the traditional textiles in their everyday lives and during special occasions.






Senijari’s founder, who is also a board member of Think City attended the launch in her capacity as Think City’s director. Think City played a role in assisting with designing and creating a selection of the text and photo displays for the content and descriptions of the exhibitions in the gallery through photography, write ups, informative signage and labeling. Galeri Tenun in collaboration with Think City are expected to create interesting cultural programs at the gallery from next year.

With the revival of this cultural hub, along with the burgeoning heritage area of vintage shops, hipster cafes, art galleries and independent boutiques along the historical Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru is shaping up to be a creative and cultural city.

The South East Asia Craft Forum -“Crafting Futures” – What is the future of Malaysian craft?

sketch post - crafting futuresRecently, the British Council in Kuala Lumpur approached me to assist them with the first South East Asia Craft Forum to discuss the future of craft amongst craft practitioners, social entrepreneurs, students, craft institutions and universities. The Forum was held at the Islamic Arts Museum on 23 October 2018. Wendy Teo of Borneo Lab was the curator of the Forum. She and I joined forces to create the Forum’s content so that the Forum would be useful and meaningful to the discussion on craft for the region, especially for Malaysia.



Amongst the important questions at the Forum: Why is craft important? What is the future of craft? What do we need and what don’t we need? What needs to happen?

The importance of craft

To put in context how important craft is, in the UK for example, the craft industry generates GPB3.4 billion a year. The physical act of making crafts has been proven to be beneficial to society spiritually and intellectually. Craft making encourages critical thinking, problem solving and even assists with pain management. Craft also helps a country and the community to strengthen their cultural identities.

Challenges in Malaysia

In Malaysia, we learnt that there are many challenges that could affect the future of our craft. Amongst the bigger ones include the lack of awareness and appreciation of craft, a low level of design and innovation and declining motivation amongst our artisans. How do we surmount these challenges?

What the youth think about craft

Firstly, it was important to first listen to what the younger generation had to say about the future of craft. We heard from students of Institut Kraf Negara (National Craft Institute) as well as a few young social entrepreneurs that it was important to engage young Malaysians from an early age to appreciate craft. We should include craft in our education curriculum from the primary level in order to inculcate cultural appreciation. We could reap from an early age the intellectual, physical and spiritual benefits from craft making. In this technological age, we could easily use amongst other platforms, the social media to engage the young on how important craft is. Some participants at the Forum felt that Malaysian needs a National Blueprint for Craft so that we have a common direction and clear policy on craft.


The level of design and innovation of Malaysian crafts can improve greatly through training. We heard from Dr. Joseph Lo, Chief Consultant (Asia) for Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage ( that in fact, there are modules for training artisans to innovate.  Traditional artisans could be designers and vice versa. There are many ways to innovate. One of them is simply using everyday life and objects that become references or stories for craft product designs. Dr. Joseph Lo demonstrated to us at the Forum that crafted products could emerge from a community’s cultural lifestyle – something as simple as the items in your grandmother’s kitchen, or how a woman carries a child.

It is alarming to hear that there is declining motivation amongst artisans. Despite this, we heard with hope that there are success stories in Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar on how crafts can be branded globally, elevating the status of artisans and the value of their products.  One of the ways to motivate artisans to continue and simultaneously branding the craft of a particular country is for the government to distinguish artisans with superior skills by creating an official seal of excellence. This seal can distinguish a particular craft product as a high quality product that is authentic and skillfully made, giving it a higher value.

Craft everyday

Including craft in our everyday life is certainly challenging but not impossible. If we encourage and support more collaboration between artisans and designers, architects, entrepreneurs and academics, we could incorporate craft in everyday life. The architectural practice in Malaysia is to a certain extent already finding ways to incorporate craft practices or elements into our buildings and surroundings. However, we have a long way to go before we see character in the majority of our modern buildings, streets and city landscapes that could be contributed by craftsmen or inspired by craft elements. The commercial reality required by developers hits home, and the awareness and pride in our craft remain relatively under developed. However, the small, human-level details that craft can provide could make designs around us more engaging and noticeable. The Malaysian cultural identity could only strengthen if craft is included in our daily lives. So what are we waiting for?



The Art Of Stone Lithography Prints


Artists are constantly inspired by not just what goes on around them, but also what is missing or absent from around them.

Recently, I had the opportunity to write about my trip to Paris where I spent some time with Malaysian artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar (Zakii) and Jalaini  (Jai) Abu Hassan. Whilst the main object of the trip was to attend an art event at the Pompidou, it turned out that the trip led me to host a full blown art show on stone lithography prints by the two artists at Cult Gallery, an art space I co-founded.

The “Stoned in Paris” show opened on the 28th of July 2018. The show displayed lithography prints created by the two Malaysian artists at Idem Paris, a workshop in Montparnasse, Paris renowned for printing stone lithographs in a traditional way from over 100 years ago. It was the first time Jai and Zakii had created artworks from the stone lithographic process. This is because Malaysia does not have the kind of facility that Idem Paris has. It was truly exciting for the two artists to find a new way to express themselves simply because there were new equipment and an environment in which to do so.


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For the show, Jai produced a series of works comprising lithographic prints entitled  “Jembalang Busut Jantan” and subsequently 5 unique prints that combined lithography with drawings in bitumen and ink.  Zakii produced lithographic prints entitled “Mephisto” and subsequently 9 unique prints that combined lithography with drawings in acrylic, pastel and other media. The show was well covered by the media, and the visitors to the gallery were thrilled to learn about a new art form through these two artists’ works. It is yet another benchmark for Malaysian artists to experiment, explore and create something out of their comfort zone.




As the co-founder of Cult Gallery, I was very pleased to have hosted a show that was educational and which opened up the boundaries to collectors and artists alike. After hosting the Sisters in Islam charity art show “Hell, Heaven” late last year along with a public talk on “Gender, Art and Culture”, it is yet another benchmark for the gallery – the challenge of introducing something new to art lovers.

Read more on the art show here : The Star  and The Edge 





Paris Snows in the Spring

” I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year…”

Remember this song? I particularly like the version sung by Ella Fitzgerald. The song is soulful and simultaneously uplifting, just like Paris, one of the most cultured cities in Europe.  Continue reading

Traditional creativity in modern Seoul


On a trip to attend an art exhibition in Seoul recently, I discovered parts of this huge city that were delightful to someone who likes to walk, loves art, history and traditional craft.

The art exhibition I attended was located in one of the most attractive areas in Seoul, which otherwise resembles a modern, concrete jungle. Samcheong-dong is flanked by two royal palaces from the Joseon Dynasty – Gyeongbokgung palace and Changdeokgung Palace. The Joseon dynasty lasted 5 centuries from the 14th to the 19thcentury and has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea.

Most of modern Korean culture, etiquette, norms and societal norms developed during this period. The modern Korean languageits dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.



In stark contrast to the center of the Seoul which is full of high rises, shopping centers and huge roads filled with cars, Samcheong-Dong has mountains, blossom trees as well as the Bukchon Hanok, the traditional wooden Korean houses.

Sam which means “three” and cheong “clean or good”,  was given its name in reference to the three things it is said  to have in abundance: clean water, beautiful neighboring mountains and kind-hearted residents.



A stroll through Bukchon and Samcheong-Dong revealed a distinctive neighbourhood full of not just traditional Korean culture, but also contemporary art. We were there in late March recently, and witnessed the grounds of the royal palace gardens  overtaken by enthusiastic local and foreign tourists (undoubtedly avid fans of Korean soap operas) dressed up in Korean traditional costumes to take pictures against the picturesque backdrop of the traditional Korean palaces and the pink spring blossom trees – it was like being in a period Korean drama film set.

On the other hand, the national Korean contemporary art museum, The Jewellery Museum and numerous other museums have mushroomed in Samcheong-Dong. Art galleries, craft shops and specialty food cafes have set up in this neighbourhood, adding to its considerable charm.


Our first stop was the main reason for our trip, which was a solo exhibition of Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar at Baik Gallery. Baik Gallery is an art gallery from Los Angeles that has now set up a second branch in Seoul. The gallery was located around the corner from the Prime Minister’s residence which meant it had a lot of free security, and right across is the famous MILK COW bun and milk shop which sells a variety of soft but square milk buns with fillings like chestnut and red bean, and special milk tea in square bottles. So the location of the gallery was excellent in many ways than one. The art opening was interesting as we had mostly Korean visitors who were art collectors or art lovers, but the very friendly Malaysian deputy High Commissioner attended too. Many were intrigued by Malaysian art. I noticed that art spaces and museums are very well attended by Korean themselves. They have a strong respect for art, culture and tradition. Contemporary art seems to be thriving in Korea. The major Korean conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai have already set up private galleries showcasing their considerable art collections to the public.


In another gallery in Samcheong-Dong, we discovered the exhibition of  artist and  craftsman Ernst Gamperl who won the Loewe Craft Award 2017. He made wooden bowls from fallen trees, and these exquisite bowls were displayed in a modern gallery designed by a Korean architect that felt like a traditional house with its integration of the nature, light and the outdoors. I was awestruck with admiration with the space as well as the masterful craftsmanship of the wooden bowls.


Further up the hill just below one of the palaces, we were fortunate to visit a private ceramic gallery and showroom, LVS crafts. I fell in love with Korean ceramics. Ranging from traditional shapes in restrained white or pale green glazing to ceramic pieces in odd, fantastic shapes colours and textures, Korean ceramic artists have pushed the craft towards creating ceramic artworks which are original and highly creative.


Freshly inspired by Seoul and its pleasant contradictions between modernity and traditional creativity, I returned home with a new set of eyes through which I could view our very own artisanal creations.