Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) celebrates our shared Southeast Asian heritage with Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities, its latest special exhibition, featuring over 100 masterpieces from overseas and local lenders, as well as rarely seen pieces from the National Collection.
Opening to the public this Friday, the cloths and clothing items tell stories about making, wearing, and trading batik. Batik Kita explores the rich history and culture of batik and batik making, from its traditional roots to contemporary designs. Visitors are invited to step into an exquisite world of batik textiles that cut across cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and explore the dynamic possibilities of batik as fashion through the years. The exhibition also introduces innovations by batikers in the age-old craft, and showcases how batik charted the evolution of new identities in the newly formed nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Kennie Ting, Director of ACM and Peranakan Museum, shares, “ACM is so pleased to present Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities, our first major exhibition on batik. Keeping in mind our interest in Asian decorative arts and innovation in craft and tradition, the special exhibition celebrates batik as both textile AND fashion, and spotlights batik-makers then and today. Visitors can expect an introduction to batik as a historical artform, as well as an exploration of how batik has influenced style in our region, even today. The title, “Batik Kita” (“Our Batik”) celebrates batik as a form of shared cultural heritage in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as the larger Southeast Asia, with its long-standing textile traditions. I personally hope that the exhibition encourages more of us here in Singapore to dress in this iconic, innovative, and exhilarating form of dress that is so much a part of who we are as Southeast Asians.”
Batik first emerged as a highly effective way of patterning fabrics in Java during the 17th century, and most batiks today are made and invented from the rich repertoire of patterns developed in the central Javanese courts at Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo). Visitors to the exhibition will be introduced to the illustrious history of batik making and wearing as they explore the rows of batik hung the traditional way across the first section of the gallery. Highlights include three pieces on loan from the Sonobudoyo Museum in Yogyakarta, providing a rare look into traditional batiks used in Cirebon, a court on the coast of western Java.
Besides traditional batik from the Javanese courts, Batik Kita features an extensive range of textiles, including the pagi-sore (day-night) and tiga negeri (three patterns) styles, cloths with seafood and animal motifs, bangbangan (red batiks), and creative designs from Chinese-owned workshops along the pesisir (north coast of Java); as well as the use of canting (hand-drawing) to write calligraphic inscriptions. While not exhaustive, the exhibition reveals the depth and diversity of batik in Southeast Asia, transcending borders, cultures, and mediums, and shows how locals embraced batik as the fashion of the region.
The second section of Batik Kita explores the transformations of batik as fashion, casting a spotlight on batik makers of the past and present. Visitors will be transported back to yesteryear as they encounter re-imagined batik fashions worn by their parents or grandparents in Singapore, in the spirit of independence and forging a new identity. Lining the walls are iron and copper batik stamps made and used by IB Batek Industrial, a Singapore batik making powerhouse of the 1970s and 1980s.
While the preservation of batik heritage is important, batik as an art form continues to evolve with each generation. A spectacular display of contemporary batik garments takes centre stage, comprising 20 loans from BINhouse, a textiles enterprise that is a main arbiter of taste for Indonesian batik fashion. Featuring silks woven on Sulawesi looms, the innovative pieces on display showcase the ingenuity of BINhouse in reviving old motifs with additional techniques like weaving and needlework. Their shoulder cloths pay homage to southern Sumatran style, made vast enough to cover the wearer’s head and body.
Fashion can serve as a window to understanding the past and present. The way people choose to adorn themselves goes beyond aesthetics: from wearing batik to show regional solidarity when doing business in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, to the historic group photoshoot where leaders of the region wore batik at the 1994 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bogor, Indonesia, batik became an implicit demonstration of soft power on the political stage. At Batik Kita, audiences are invited to admire batik shirts worn by leaders of Singapore and Malaysia on significant public occasions.
Lee Chor Lin, Exhibition Curator of Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities, commented, “A large-scale batik retrospective like this has been a long time coming. Batik is enjoying a renaissance today, and I hope that Batik Kita is just one of many more beautiful batik exhibitions to come in Singapore.”
Photo Credit: Asian Civilisations Museum
Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities runs from 17th June to 2nd October 2022 at ACM, and admission charges apply. In conjunction with the exhibition, members of the public can look forward to curator tours, interactive activities and workshops focusing on batik fashion, craft and design – available online and on-site. For more information, visit www.acm.org.sg.