Last December, Oniatta Effendi spent three days in Yogyakarta and Solo, barging into people’s homes looking for batik.
The Singaporean theatre actress was on one of her regular trips to Indonesia, where she makes it a point to visit villages of batik makers. “I went to three different kampongs and just went inside someone’s house,” she said, with a laugh. “They’d show us their wares, and I would buy and bring them back.”
A hardcore batik enthusiast, Oniatta has a bunch of paintings hanging at home, a stack of books in her library and a collection of more than 40 pieces of fabric. She also creates batik outfits for her three-year-old label Baju By Oniatta.
“To me, batik has a life – there’s a soul and a heartbeat in it, when you actually go to a kampong and see the precision, craft and why they do it,” said the 44-year-old. “And now, everybody seems to want a piece of it.”
A CULTURE OF WEARING BATIK
The past couple of years has seen a resurgence in interest in batik in Singapore, with Baju By Oniatta being just one of a handful of labels championing batik, which include the likes of YeoMama Batik, Pakai and Gypsied.
There have also been pop-up events, such as those from The Batik People and Oniatta’s own My Kain Of Batik last year.
And it’s not just in fashion but in the arts as well, with batik-making classes and the occasional exhibition springing up.
Over at the Malay Heritage Centre is one such show about batik. Of Wax, Dyes And Labour, a show under Singapore Art Week, features works of young artists that put a spotlight on it.
Among these is a 5m-long piece of batik with the phrases “Culture Of Batik” and “Wear Batik To Be Asian” written on it.
Elsewhere, there’s a batik dress similar to the iconic Singapore Girl's sarong kebaya; and ceramic versions of the canting, the metallic tool used to create designs on the fabric. There’s even a performance by one of the artists, who will be folding pieces of batik fabrics.
The show aims to explore what the identity of batik is in Singapore, said curator and artist Fajrina Razak, 30, who also made the manifesto-like fabric installation.
“Batik is so close to us. We use it on a daily basis, we wear it for weddings, formal events, at home and even in funerals in the Malay culture. We have a culture of wearing, buying and trading batik – our ancestors did that a lot in the past and it’s still happening now,” she said.
NO BATIK INDUSTRY IN SINGAPORE
The ancient technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth is perhaps one of the region’s iconic trademarks and very popular in Malaysia and Indonesia. It was even designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
But while many in Singapore love to use it, there’s not much in terms of batik production here.
“We don’t have a culture of production, no batik industry. While there are artists who run batik studios, it’s solely for art-making; not for fabrics or mass production,” said Fajrina, who cited the lack of manpower and proper facilities as some of the main reasons.
“It’s labour intensive, and the labour cost is cheap in Indonesia and Malaysia. To do batik, you also need a big outdoor space. In Singapore, I don’t think people would want to go through all that trouble.”
That means many batik proponents here just turn to neighbouring countries to procure them, like Oniatta, who also pointed out that not all batik are made equal. While she sources hers straight from batik-making villages, the market is also full of lesser-quality stuff using digital prints.
Another hurdle batik lovers have is its reputation of being culturally specific to the Malay community.
“Batik belongs to everyone – it’s a medium. What we ‘own’ are the motifs that reflect us,” said Fajrina, citing, for example, how the cloud motif called batik megamendung is Chinese-inspired, or how the Dutch were influential in the mass production of batik, using the copper implement called tjap.
She added: “Even in India and Japan, you find similar techniques, even if they don’t call it batik.”
Artist Yang Jie, who is contributing an interactive, umbrella-like batik sculpture to the exhibition, shared how he discovered there was a Yunnan tribe that did something similar as well while researching for the show. “The idea of a single craft restricted to a single type of person is something that’s a bit outdated,” he said.
BATIK FOR THE FUTURE
And speaking of outdated, one of the challenges that Singapore’s batik lovers has always faced is to push it into the contemporary space.
While a handful from the older generation of artists use batik – including the late Jaafar Latiff and Sarkasi Said, who had a big show a couple of years back – there aren’t many from the current generation who do so, said Fajrina.
She reckons it might seem a bit “old school” for younger artists, who are more excited about mediums like digital art, to want to explore it. But silk screening or digital printing might actually be a way of reinventing the batik wheel in the art-making world.
When it comes to her fashion designs, new label Pakai’s Ida Supahat prefers to use a minimal touch of batik.
“Some would think using batik means creating something ‘in your face’ with the traditional brown or batik prints all over, but I would use it in a subtle way,” said the 28-year-old, adding that she would also try to keep in mind other communities and create cheongsam- or kurti-style designs in her collection.
“I think it’s not only open to the Malay Muslim or Javanese community. I’ve a lot of customers who are Chinese or Indian, so I try to design them in a way that fits any wardrobe.”
For Oniatta, it’s all about balancing today’s needs and doing justice to its heritage. “It’s not about reinventing the batik but reinventing the way it is worn,” she said.
“Batik is completely sensorial; it’s not fast fashion for me. For many, batik is just a pattern but there’s a massive ecosystem that we are supporting when we buy one – the people who make them have their little stories to tell.”
One of those, perhaps, is of a Singaporean woman who went all the way to Indonesia to visit them in their kampong homes.
Of Wax, Dyes And Labour runs from Jan 19 to Feb 9 at the Malay Heritage Centre. For more information on Singapore Art Week, visit www.artweek.sg.