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.

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.

 

 

 

Senijari Signature Collection: Organza Silk Songket Shawls

 

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Senijari presents as its Signature Collection – Senijari Organza Silk Songket.

An exquisite and beautiful way to present songket, Senijari Organza Silk Songket is handwoven in organza silk and metallic threads with intricate, yet contemporary motifs. The minimalist colours of either black or white are chosen to highlight the intricate Songket motifs in silver, gold, antique silver or antique gold metallic threads. Continue reading

India and Varanasi – a spiritual heritage in technicolour

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There is nothing quite like India.

The official tourism tagline IncredibleIndia! is not far from the truth. One can experience this huge and incredibly diverse country many times and it will still have surprising wonders to offer.

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For me, going to India is like entering a textile fantasy world – sarees, kurtas, lenghas, salwar kameez and dupattas in mind-boggling colours, textures and arrays of intricate embroidery.

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When I had the opportunity to attend a friend’s wedding in Delhi, I jumped at the chance. India is the home of some artisanal brands I admire like Fab India , Good Earth and Anokhi .

On this trip, I also discovered one of the local favourite brands, Biba, which has great designs for everyday Indian wear. Khan Market is in a Delhi neighbourhood that offers all of these brands along with other quirky shops selling local Indian fashion and accessories. The Kinari bazaar in old Delhi is the mecca of  accessories for clothes as it is contains a bewildering array of embroidery, lace, beads, sequins, mirrors and other embellishments for clothes in whatever colours and textures you can imagine.

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Peacocks, flowers, fruits are some themes spotted on the embroidered borders for skirts and sarees. The way Indian designers use colour, embroidery and embellishments on their textiles I think are unique and unparalleled in creativity, sophistication and beauty. Some of these beautifully designed saree textiles and silk shawls feature in Senijari’s Instagram shots leading up to the Hindu Festival of Lights, Deepavali which will be celebrated in Malaysia on the 18th and 19th of October.

Apart from a rich textile heritage, India has a strong spiritual heritage. It is the home of many religions including Hinduism and Buddhism. During the wedding, I discovered that the bride’s family profess the Jain religion, which I did not know much about. The Jains are strict vegetarians, and they don’t even eat eggs as they still consider eggs as containing living things. After the wedding, we headed to the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi (also known as Benares).

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In Varanasi, the Ganges river is considered sacred. People come from all over India and the world as pilgrims to Varanasi. Some Indians also go to die in Varanasi, their bodies cremated and ashes scattered in the Ganges as it is believed that to you would go straight to heaven if you die this way. As a spiritual haven, Varanasi was to be experienced through the sacred river. Along the Ganges, there are many temples with steps leading down to the river, called ghats. At each ghat there are multiple scenes and activities: There would be people bathing or cleaning their clothes, Indian priests offering cleansing rituals, chanting or practicing early morning yoga and buffaloes immersed in the water to keep cool. Then there were also cremation sites all along the river with bundles of logs for the constantly burning funeral pyres, yellow and gold cloths for covering the dead, butter and sandalwood for treating the dead bodies before they are cremated. The ghats are indeed the spiritual pulse of Varanasi.

 

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Every evening, a massive crowd will gather at the main ghats and temples to witness and participate in the Aarti, a prayer session and worshipping ritual overlooking the Ganges. The air will be thick with smoke, incense and chanting. The best view is from the boats. The atmosphere is magnificent as an expectant air is created with live Indian classical music preceding the slow and steady chanting which signals the beginning of the prayers. Priests will slowly hold up in unison and in circling motions offerings with lanterns lit with fire and incense to the Ganges River whilst the chanting grows hypnotically stronger. We just sat in our boats, watching, inhaling and listening to Aarti being performed, totally immersed along with thousands of others who came on boats.

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Although Varanasi is known for its spiritual heritage, it is also home to the best sarees called Banarasi sarees. The Banarasi sarees are distinctive for its colourful and fine hand woven silks and highly intricate “Zari” embroidery workmanship on the borders with silver or gold threads. I was brought to a workshop with genuine Banarasi sarees and was so impressed with the fine quality. Months of work go into each saree, which usually measures 6 meters in length and 45 inches in width. It is heartening to see that silk weaving on the handloom is still very much alive in India even though factories producing mass fashion also exist.

And after my fifth trip, India remains incredible.