For centuries, people from all walks of life – ranging from kings to commoners to religious figures – have worn batik. Though simple in its latticework prints, the material holds an integral part of history, with its origins dating back to the 13th century and samples found in Egypt, India, China and Japan.
As one of the most widely-known traditional crafts in the Nusantara archipelago, the textile has seen several transformations in techniques (wooden blocks to wax and copper blocks) and design.
In pre-independence Malaysia, the popularity of the humble textile soared when China-born Penang-based pioneer artist Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008) took an ingenious step forward by painting using batik-making techniques in 1953.
Chuah, who made his international mark with a British government supported exhibition in London in 1959, accorded batik painting the status of fine art, and most importantly, he added a Malayan identity to his work.
To experience the story of Chuah’s legendary career and the visual sensuality behind the diversity of batik (in fine art), the stylish exhibition Love Me In My Batik: Modern Batik Art From Malaysia And Beyond at Ilham gallery, Ilham Tower in Kuala Lumpur is a must visit.
Rahel Joseph, Ilham gallery director, and Simon Soon, independent writer, are the show’s curators.
Ilham gallery, which opened its doors last August, is Kuala Lumpur’s newest public gallery space. The Picturing The Nation exhibition, which featured works from the estate of legendary portrait painter Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995), was Ilham’s first show.
As another immersive exhibition merging fine art and national history, Love Me In My Batik looks at how batik has been embraced and reinvented through the years.
The show – spanning works from 1952 to 2016 – attempts to respond to different national imageries across successive periods in our post-war history. It examines how the emergence of batik painting in the early 1950s was, in many ways, supported by a system of colonial patronage.
In a recent interview at the gallery, Rahel says the exhibition explores how the medium, with its sartorial and crafts origins, was taken up and reinvented by successive generations of artists as a fine art form.
“The exhibition focuses on batik art from Malaysia with a small selection of contemporary art from Indonesia,” explains Rahel.
“We felt it was interesting to have an exhibition that focuses on batik art, the unique art form using wax resist and dye which was elevated from a craft tradition to a modern fine art form,” she adds. The exhibition examines two intersecting stories – the emergence of batik painting in the 1950s and the promotional push of batik by the state and how it became a popular cultural phenomenon from the 1960s onwards. The development of a batik craft industry followed suit.
The exhibition, which occupies Ilham’s fifth floor, surveys this uniquely Malaysian story by considering the broader entanglements among the search for a localised artistic and creative vision, the desire for national selfhood, and the transformation of traditional art forms to reflect modern aspirations.
At the exhibition, visitors can easily identify the evolution in the batik art form. Primarily, it showcases works from the 1950s and 1960s and how the pioneer artists tackled the concept of nation-building, each expressing their hopes for the future through batik painting.
“Paintings from the 1950s and 1960s depict everyday activities such as kampung life, fishermen, rubber tappers and construction work, all seen to represent the spirit of the land and nationhood,” says Rahel.
Apart from Chuah, the exhibition also has works from early masters such as Tay Mo-Leong, Chuah Seow Keng and Khalil Ibrahim.
From the 1970s, batik paintings moved in a new direction with artists pushing their techniques towards abstract compositions, integrating local traditional decorative and design principles and motifs from Islam and the region.
“The 1970s saw the growth of two different styles – abstract compositions as well as works that dealt with identity and community,” says Rahel.
Although the selection of contemporary artwork isn’t necessarily painting-based, it features the use of batik as technique, process or material. It also highlights a handful of contemporary batik artworks from Indonesia.
Contemporary artists Liew Kung Yu and Yee I-Lann offer Love Me In My Batik a modern day spin, with state of the nation commentaries.
The show’s 70 works were obtained from various sources, including the National Visual Arts Gallery, Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Muzium Dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah and through various private collections.
A special showcase of modern batik designs from the 1960s to 1980s, donated by heritage advocate Raja Fuziah to the Department of Museums Malaysia, is one of the exhibition highlights.
If you need a few gallery recommendations, then look towards the key works by Chuah (Perairan Pulau Pinang and Festival Day), Tay’s Rubber Trees, Khalil’s Kolaj, right to Yee’s The Orang Besar Series and Liew’s Sehati Sejiwa.
“There is also a selection of works by some early women artists, including Fatimah Chik’s Rentak Nusantara, Ida Ruth Talalla’s Sinar Suria and Grace Selvanayagam’s Untitled piece,” says Rahel.
While the exhibition cover a wide range of subjects ranging from figurative forms and village life to abstract work, there is a section in Love Me In My Batik that packs in the sensual pieces, including Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s Youth Embarbed and Lee Kian Seng’s Ying-Yang Series.
The title of the art exhibition is undoubtedly catchy, too.
Rahel mentions that the exhibition takes its title from artist Joseph Tan’s sexy 1968 collage batik work of the same name.
Tan’s work was a commentary on the cultural frenzy that batik inspired as Malaysia searched for an artistic form that suited its modern identity.
“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a great push by the authorities towards the promotion of batik. We wanted to reference Tan’s satirical commentary on how batik was being embraced in popular culture in the exhibition,” she explains.
Love Me In My Batik: Modern Batik Art From Malaysia And Beyond is on at Ilham, Kuala Lumpur, till June 15.