Malaysian Batik –
At some point in Malaysia’s recent history, the government introduced a national scheme to encourage workers to wear batik to the office every Friday. Such is the importance of this fabric to the state’s culture and identity. Similar to other Southeast Asian batik traditions, Malaysian batik uses a wax-resist printing technique and dip-dyeing to render patterns on cloth. But unlike the intricate designs endemic to Indonesia, Malay textiles are more likely to combine large motifs and brush painting. Most compositions revolve around floral patterns; human and animal depictions are less common, as Islamic convention forbids the use of animal imagery as decoration. A notable exception to this rule can be found in batik painting, where a technique usually reserved for beautifying utilitarian textiles has converged with the world of fine arts. The idea of ‘painting’ with batik was first pioneered in the 1950s by a Penang local, Chinese-born Chuah Thean Teng, and continues to be practiced today.
The Penang Batik Painting Museum
Teng (or ‘Dato’ as he’s sometimes called) may have passed away in 2008, but the legacy of the batik avant-garde he founded lives on in the Penang Batik Painting Museum. Set in a three-story building on George Town’s Armenian Street, the museum houses over 70 works by 25 Malaysian and international artists, spanning from the 1950s through to the present day. Most illustrate a use of traditional wax-resist batik rendered on cloth panels, some small, others life-size, and framed behind glass. While most works resemble portrait or landscape paintings, contained within the frame, others that use repeat patterns and abstract forms look more like sampled fabric swatches.
Many of the artists exhibited here portray vignettes of Malaysian life, and among my favourite works are the vivid market and fishing scenes inspired by Penang’s waterfront trade. I’m used to seeing batik manipulated purely for abstract and decorative purposes, so I was surprised at how effectively the technique can be adapted to portray realist scenes and details. From painting to painting, the fine rivulets created by batik ‘crackling’ give uncanny muscle and vein patterns to human bodies, scales to fish, and texture to the tight weave of bamboo baskets. The delicate fish nets that dominate Ismail Mat Hussin’s After the Catch (2009) are a particularly spectacular example of this. Given that most pattern designs are drawn from nature, it’s fascinating to see how this collective of artists can put patterns back into nature with such dexterity and aplomb.
I also love the works, and there are more than a few, that depict characters dressed in traditional Malay sarongs – batik within batik. In Koay Soo Kau’s Love (1973), the patterned garments of mother and father seamlessly converge at the painting’s centre point – surely one of the most beautiful details I found within any of the works on display.
The Penang Batik Painting Museum is open daily from 10am. Are you a fan of Malaysian batik? What do you think about the adaptation of the technique for fine arts?