Sunday March 10, 2013
The world in a piece of cloth
By ROUWEN LIN
There might be fewer practitioners around now, but the allure of handwoven and decorated textiles lives on.
A WEDDING? A coronation? A coming-of-age ceremony? None of this would be complete without a special selection of textiles on display for all to see. Such was the importance bestowed upon handwoven and decorated textiles in traditional Malay culture that has, to a large extent, been carried into the present day.
These textiles were considered status symbols; an indication of how wealthy a family you come from; or in some cases, how superior your embroidery skills are (ladies of the palace were taught how to embroider, and many a woman with superior embroidery skills were said to have caught the eye of a future mother-in-law this way!).
Adline Abdul Ghani of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia curatorial affairs department refers to these handwoven and decorated textiles as “the cornerstones of our cultural identity”.
“They were meant for special occasions, they were expensive and they took a long time to make. A piece could take up to several months of hard work,” she says.
Even after months of slaving over the loom, sometimes the work would still not be done.
Do you want to add sheen to the fabric? Not so long ago, they had to do it by hand. Some techniques even called for spreading beeswax all over the cloth and then rubbing it down with a cowry shell.
“Something with delicate finishing and dainty details would hardly be suitable to wear for rough work in the fields; you need to be sitting around doing nothing, or be sauntering around very lady-like. So these textiles were also a symbol of refinement,” Adline adds.
Showcased at the ongoing exhibition at the museum entitled Tradition And Continuity: Woven And Decorated Textiles Of The Malay Peninsula are six different textiles arts.
Songket, tenun and tekat (see Textile techniques, below, for details) remain popular to this day and are still widely produced and used in the country. However, there are few surviving practitioners of limar, kelingkan and telepuk and these traditional techniques are under threat of becoming obsolete.
The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of the late Malaysian cultural icon Sharifah Azah Syed Mohammad Alsagoff, fondly known as Azah Aziz.
Adline recalls, “She once said that kain limar, particularly limar bersongket, is among the finest product of the Malay loom. On average, it would take about three months to finish a very exquisite, intricate piece. There are many efforts to revive these traditional arts, but it remains a challenge.”
The exhibition, comprising over 50 artefacts from the museum’s permanent collection, is divided into two main sections; the Tradition segment presents boldly coloured textiles from the days of old, while the Continuity segment offers contemporary designs that many would consider to have more of an universal appeal. Adline describes the colours in the latter segment as relatively “muted and soothing”.
“The most obvious differences between the textiles in the traditional and contemporary sections are the visual aesthetics like colour choices and motifs.
“The textures are also different. Many of the modern pieces have more stylised interpretations of traditional motifs like the bamboo shoot, cockerel’s tail or persimmon’s corolla,” she explains.
Also on display are some of the materials and tools used in producing these textiles.
Lending their expertise to the exhibition and accompanying publication (the 192-page hard cover catalogue in full colour is available at The Museum Shop for RM98) are two Malaysian textile experts: Raja Datin Paduka Fuziah Raja Tun Uda, the first director-general of the Malaysian Handicraft Association and founding member of the Asean Handicraft Promotion and Development Association; and Assoc Prof Dr Norwani Md Nawawi of Universiti Teknologi Mara, who is a textile designer and educator.
There is a special section of the exhibition that shows how the aesthetics of Malay textiles inspired three designers from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London to come up with their own artistic interpretations of traditional Malay designs.
Samantha Buckley, Ayesha Gamiet, and Amber Khokhar were commissioned by the IAMM to examine and analyse the motif on a silk songket shawl featuring pucuk rebung lawi ayam (bamboo shoot with cockerel’s tail) and bunga tampuk kesemak (persimmon’s corolla).
“From the land to the sea, from the earth to the sky, everything around you can be represented in a piece of cloth. Guided by the aesthetics and names of each motif, these designers each offered their interpretation of what could have been the initial inspiration of the weaver,” explains Adline, adding that, traditionally, many of the motifs on such textiles are inspired by nature.
She hopes that the exhibition will encourage a re-examination of the beauty of these textiles, the culture that it came from, and how the industry developed and evolved.
“What we have at this exhibition is a legacy of the resplendent past, that golden era from some time ago.
“And now that we are here in the 21st century, we have to think about where our traditional textile industry is heading,” she concludes.
Tradition And Continuity: Woven And Decorated Textiles Of The Malay Peninsula is on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Jalan Lembah Perdana, KL) until June 30. The museum is conducting educational programmes throughout the duration of the exhibition. Call 03-2274 2020 or visit iamm.org.my for more information.