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B is for Batik

… is for Batik

Batik is one of the most widely known textile craft traditions of the Malay Archipelago. The technique is not, however, unique to the region and its traditional applications can be found all over Asia, from India to China as well as Egypt and West Africa.

Simply put, batik is a wax-resist method of dyeing fabric, which is capable of producing intricate patterns on cloth. Arguably, the finest form of hand-drawn batik, produced in Java, is the batik tulis, which can take weeks, months and even years to complete. Using a canting (a copper crucible with a spout and a bamboo handle), delicate and fine drawings can be made with wax onto cloth, which is then subjected to successive baths of different-coloured dyes to create richly coloured patterns.

Drawing a pattern onto cloth with a canting and hot wax.

In the mid-19th century, widespread use of the cap, a handheld stamp (usually made out of copper) to apply wax to the cloth led to the industrialisation of batik production, as it significantly reduced the amount of time needed to produce a piece of batik cloth.

A patterned copper stamp or cap

Originally an artisanal craft applied to the production of textiles for clothing, the technique of batik painting became a fine art medium in Southeast Asia around the time of decolonisation and independence, when artists began seeking a new visual language that could be part of the regional vernacular. Among the early adopters of the medium were Chuah Thean Teng, from Penang, and Seah Kim Joo, whose childhood home of Kuala Terengganu on the East Coast of Malaysia was a centre for batik production.

Seah Kim Joo, Untitled (Malayan Life), 1968. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Batik, as medium and technique, continues to appeal to contemporary artists in the region today. In Singapore, Sarkasi Said is an internationally recognised master of contemporary batik painting, taking an innovative and unique approach to the art form through his abstract images, often inspired by nature and the Singapore way of life (see for example, the featured image above, of his 1997 work Longevity (Koi)). An exhibition of his works, from the 1990s to the present, Always Moving,  is currently on at the NUS Museum until 30 June 2018. The works, many large-scale, are characterised by dynamic and intricate decorative elements and a bold and effective use of colours.

Bambang ‘Toko’ Witjaksono, Berbeda-beda Tetapi Putus Juga: Lamarlah Daku, Bukan Ibuku, 2015. Image credit: Ilham Gallery

Indonesian contemporary artist Bambang Witjaksono‘s batik works couldn’t be more different from the works of the post-independence era batik painters. An avid collector of vintage comics, toys and pop culture memorabilia, he uses a comic book aesthetic reminiscent of those of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein to tell contemporary stories with a playful, satirical humour.

As Rahel Joseph, curator of the 2016 exhibition Love Me in My Batik at the Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur says, contemporary batik art is “a visual expression of the fabric of life, and is as complex and multi-layered as the textile itself.”

(The letter ‘B’ illustrated by Nadra Ahmad)

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