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.

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

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

Fashion with a difference – the debut of Theatre of Fashion, Rainforest Fringe Festival 2017

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I have always known that Joe Sidek (the Festival Director of George Town Festival, Penang) was talented and used to organize fashion shows, but he proves that creativity can surpass itself over and over again. 

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Dreams do come true – Making new Senijari jewellery.

 

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Ever wonder how new ideas are born? And travel around the world? Sometimes inspiration and ideas just come through in many forms. I get mine mostly from travelling, reading, listening to music and quite often, just daydreaming. Continue reading