Talking Travel Destination Worldview Michelle Newman Malaysian Batik


An Artful Journey to Malaysia’s Batik Week
by Michelle Newman

When one thinks of fabric Batik, what often comes to mind are the ancient cultures and leftover hippy-dippy caftans like the ones Mama Cass wore back in the 1970s. Put these images aside and permit me to introduce you to modern Malaysian Batik — a whole new world of art, and a spectacle to behold.


Malaysian Batik is fresh, fashion-forward, and edgy. And this modern-day style of Batik is now penetrating European and American markets. With its couture quality, Malaysian Batik is equally at home on any New York or Paris runway. This is a world-class textile and art form that is “here and now.”

During a three-month artistic odyssey through Asia, I attended "Malaysian Batik Week" presented by Kuala Lumpur International Batik (KLIB) — an equally world-class event.

Imagine a major Batik extravaganza, featuring daily activities including a Batik fun walk, endless fashion shows, bazaars, demonstrations, a “Little Miss Batik” pageant, a soft-furnishings exhibition, and other related competitions — all this to celebrate an art form that goes back many centuries. In fact, the term batik itself is an Indonesian-Malay word. The official languages of Indonesia and Malaysia are Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malay, and both have linguistic similarities.

Batik artists, designers, and entrepreneurs converged from all over the world to attend the event. Exhibitors from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia were on hand to showcase their breathtaking textiles. Key presenters spoke on contemporary Batik and business issues, branding, rozome, the use of soy wax as an alternative to beeswax, and the history of Batik.

Serious prize money was at stake for designers entering competitions in different categories in fashion and home furnishings. All of this activity was capped off by an evening of glitz and glamour at the finals fashion show and gala, as one exquisite creation after another made its way down the runway. This exclusive event was emceed by CNN’s Lorraine Hahn and graced by the presence of the King and Queen of Malaysia, their entourage, and even the nation’s prime minister.

Combining art and travel, I got an insider’s look at an art form that is indigenous to these cultures. Like the proverbial kid in a candy shop, I marveled at a wide variety of designs on the fabrics displayed, from hand-painted tropical and floral motifs made by applying hot wax with brushes and tjanting tools to more contemporary stripes, swirls, and splashy prints. These extrtaordinary designs dominated the runway, with much of the inspiration evidently coming from Malaysia’s lush jungles and verdant tropical scenery. This is another indication of how landscape influences art; a concept that admirers of European art — especially of painters like Gaughin — will relate to.

The models, by the way, were drop-dead gorgeous with their makeup and hair equally as exotic as their ensembles. Jagged, beaded hemlines and fabric edges accented chiffon skirts and tops. The fashions were sexy, revealing, and expressed a kicky attitude. This was Batik theater in the grandest sense.

A Bit of Batik History

The late Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, (the Prime Minister's wife) who was absolutely committed to the revival of the Batik industry in Malaysia, spearheaded a movement that began in 2003. She was determined to make Batik a household word and put it on the world map. She also encouraged Malaysians to “wear Batik with pride” and to take pride in their rich culture and heritage.

Armed with the mantra “Malaysia Batik: Crafted for the World” Datin Seri Endon set about making her vision a reality — until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This didn’t stop her efforts, for she pursued her mission as long as she could. As a result of this Batik movement, the KLIB event — under the leadership of CEO Puan Leela Mohd Ali and Director Stephen Doss — is now in its third year.

The Malaysian government has supported its craftspeople significantly since 1974 with the establishment of Kraftangan, a government organization under the auspices of the ministry of culture that is designed to promote Malaysian handicrafts and culture. This outstanding program serves as a role model for the arts and textile industries of other countries.

Along with Karyaneka, the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation’s marketing wing and retail outlets, Kraftangan provides educational handicraft training, an artist-incubator program, entrepreneurial training, sales and promotion of handicrafts, and a Batik research and development center. Students and emerging artists are provided with the necessary skills to become more financially self-sufficient and independent. Many of the program’s early attendees and participants have opened Batik businesses that are hugely successful, which also helps to provide income for local villagers.

Malaysia is fully committed to promoting Batik through non-governmental organizations as well as government-sponsored programs and agencies such as Kraftangan. The common goal is simply to make Malaysia a Batik capital. I can't think of any other country that has shown as much dedication to helping artists and craftspeople develop, grow, and attain economic independence. This is a country that takes its culture and handicrafts seriously.

Thanks to Dato Zakiah Ahmed, the director of Kraftangan and her loyal and dedicated staff, I got a glimpse into this outstanding program that educates, nurtures and supports its artists. Under Kraftangan, the Institut Kraf Negara (IKN) is a government-sponsored handicraft school that trains 500 to 600 students annually in craft categories such as Batik, weaving, and wood carving. Each student’s tuition, supplies, and materials are all provided, and they are given a monthly stipend. Furthermore, they are trained by a very experienced faculty.

Students can earn either a two-year certificate or a three-year diploma in their respective fields. I spent one afternoon with Juhari Azmi and Faridah Salehan in the Batik Department at IKN observing the program and becoming familiar with the curriculum. The impressive and comprehensive Batik Program has an emphasis on natural as well as chemical dyeing using the tjanting tool and tjap (printing block).

A Malaysian Mosaic

Like the diversity of the Batik world itself, in Malaysia you will find a fascinating mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and Christians peacefully co-exist and respect each other’s differences. While in the region, I attended a city-wide “Hari Krismas” party given by the King and Queen and was very touched when the Queen took my hand and wished me a “Merry Krismas” from the back of her maroon Rolls Royce.

The blending of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures in this area of the world creates a colorful collage of cultural motifs and themes, many of which are reflected in the Batik creations. This exotic concoction also is reflected in the enticing cuisine, so be prepared to gain a minimum of five pounds on your visit; elaborate buffets are quite popular throughout the region. In addition to feeling quite at home in the artistic community in Malaysia, I also felt quite secure in the country. The Malaysians I met were all kind-hearted, warm, and friendly people. Making visitors feel welcome also seems to be a national art form.

As an artist myself, the world of Batik was not a new experience for me. However, experiencing the innovativeness, the creativity, and the contemporary Malaysian Batik industry did teach me how important it is for all nations to appreciate and value the vibrant arts industries that help define a national culture. For artists and art aficionados, emphasizing the integration of a global arts community is one more way we can promote international peace and understanding.

The Basics of Batik

Batik is a wax-resist process in which hot melted wax is either brushed on, block printed (tjap), or applied with tjanting tool in certain areas of the fabric. During the the dyeing process therefore, the dye will not penetrate the area that is covered with the wax. In the Batik dyeing process, the lighter colors are dyed first on the cloth by either immersing it in a large vat, or the dye is directly handpainted onto the the fabric. Once the fabric has dried, additional areas of the original designs are painted again with another layer of wax to preserve the lighter color, and subsequently over-dyed in a darker color. You always work from light to dark. This process continues until the artist is satisfied with the results and deems the piece finished. Layers of dye and wax are also used to create dimension and surface interest. Once the piece is complete, the wax is removed by either boiling, dry cleaning, or ironing. The Batik fabric is then ready to be used in creating a garment, wall hanging, or other creation such as a quilt.

Learn More about Batik and Malaysia

The following websites will give you additional insight into this nation and its Batik industry.

The History of Batik
Limkokwing University
Kuala Lumpur International Batik Convention

Indonesian and Malaysian Batik

Also visit:

Malaysia Tourism

Photographs by Michelle Newman