The story of modern-day Singapore, informed by batik


Produced by SilverKris for Asian Civilisations Museum

Where in Singapore can you find history enthusiasts, heritage fans and fashion lovers all under one roof? The Asian Civilisations Museum, of course. Singapore’s national museum of Asian antiquities and decorative arts is hosting an expansive retrospective on batik. Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities explores the region’s longstanding relationship with this UNESCO-recognised craft. Visitors can expect to marvel at more than 100 pieces of batik, including rarely seen pieces from Singapore’s National Collection.

Why is this exhibition so significant? Because batik is far more than just a gorgeous textile craft. The wax-resist dying technique is intertwined with the histories, identities and cultures of maritime Southeast Asia. Originating in the Javanese courts of the 1600s, batik has over the centuries crossed and recrossed the seas to Malaysia, Brunei, parts of Thailand and Singapore.

Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities is an exciting, expansive homage to the role of batik in maritime Southeast Asia, on view at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore

Singapore’s special relationship with batik

And that’s not all. The exhibition also pays homage to the very special role Singapore has played in the spread of batik across the region and the world. The primary regional entrepot before World War 2, Singapore historically received millions of rolls of batik that were then exported to the rest of the world. This relationship with batik has continued well into the 21st-century, as a symbol of cultural identity during rapid modernisation, a diplomatic tool and as the inspiration for contemporary fashion.

Batik Kita at Asian Civilisations Museum explores all this and more through a variety of gorgeous exhibits. From rarely seen artefacts to contemporary fashion statements, the show offers visual delights for style mavens and history-lovers alike.

Batik in Singapore: A journey through the decades

To trace the intertwined history of Singapore and batik, start with the spectacular century-old dodot, an unmissable highlight of the exhibition. A ceremonial waist cloth made in Yogyakarta and worn by Javanese sultans, the dodot features a white lozenge-shaped tengah in the centre, symbolising the ruler’s spiritual purity and his importance during ceremonies.

But that’s not the dodot’s only claim to fame. The piece was also one of the first to arrive almost a century ago at the Raffles Library and Museum – its story tied up inextricably with one of the city-state’s earliest public institutions.

A highlight of the exhibition, this century-old Javanese dodot (ceremonial waist cloth) was first on show at the Raffles Library & Museum, a precursor to Singapore’s present-day cultural institutions

Batik in the workplace – and in the sky

From the dodot of the 1920s, the exhibition traces the transformation of batik in recent decades. Many pieces on display are sure to evoke a sense of nostalgia among local visitors – with designs that were possibly worn by their own parents and grandparents.

Check out the sarong kebaya suit – a two piece garment made from the same batik – by by Anthony Tan, Max Tan and Claire Leong from the Faculty of Fashion Design at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Representing a modern approach to batik, the piece encapsulates the generation of Singaporean women who were entering the workforce in the ’60s and ’70s.

Explaining the significance of the piece, exhibition curator Lee Chor Lin says, “This was what many Singapore women wore to work. The suit gave them a sense of workspace seriousness, as a business suit does, but underpinning it with a precious identity statement.”

Of course, no exploration of batik and Singaporean identity would be complete without a celebration of the iconic Singapore Girl sarong kebaya. The exhibition pays due homage to the Singapore Airlines uniform, designed by Pierre Balmain in 1966 and commissioned by the then–Malayan Airways. The iconic garment that has remained more or less unchanged over the decades. “Balmain created an industrially printed fabric to simulate batik and reform the sarong kebaya kota baru silhouette,” Lee explains, referring to a style first popularized in the city of Kota Bharu. “[This included] rounding the collar, trimming the sleeves and reinforcing the spirit of optimism of 1960s. It was a very new way to design a uniform for a national carrier.”

This silk batik shirt (right) was made by famed Indonesian fashion designer Iwan Tirta and worn by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at the 1994 APEC conference in Bogor, Indonesia

Batik in politics and fashion

From business offices to national carriers, batik has made its mark on the highest echelons of international politics. The Batik Kita exhibition features several batik garments famously worn by political figures from Southeast Asia. Take, for instance, the elegant silk batik shirt designed by famed Indonesian fashion designer Iwan Tirta. It was worn by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at the 1994 APEC conference in Bogor, Indonesia, where he was one of many delegates to sport Irwan Tirta batik shirts.

Exhibition visitors will also see the red-and-white number batiked by Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Sarkasi Said and worn by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 2019 National Day Parade – a sartorial statement that underscores the timelessness of batik. “Particularly in Southeast Asia, batik has evolved to become a reflection of identity and island-solidarity,” says Lee. “It has become a way to bring together counterparts from the region, whether it is in business, politics, or leisure.”

Perhaps the most striking pieces on display at Batik Kita are the contemporary outfits by today’s Singaporean fashion labels. Baju by Oniatta and Tong Tong Friendship Store are two such names, introducing batik to surprising silhouettes that bring together multi-cultural sensibilities. The former reinterprets the traditional Malay and Javanese garments and forms with elements of Japanese designs, while the latter employs batik for Chinese silhouettes such as the cheongsam. Together, these outfits lovingly trace batik’s continued relevance in Singapore today.

Singapore’s contemporary fashion designers bring bold new silhouettes and multicultural sensibilities to batik garments

Hands-on batik activities at Asian Civilisations Museum

When you’re done exploring Singapore’s close relationship with batik, try an immersive activity. Visitors should visit The Batik Workshop at Level 2 Foyer of the museum, where they can admire various physical tools used to make batik, learn how batik is patterned and dyed and even have a go at designing a batik cap and Those visiting the museum with children – aged 7 and above – can hop onto the Batik Activity Trail, a family-friendly trail that explores batik patterns and fashion. The trail is available in English or Malay, both online and onsite.

Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities runs until 2 October 2022 at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore’s national museum of Asian antiquities and decorative arts. Nestled on the banks of the Singapore River, the Asian Civilisations Museum is the only museum in Asia that champions art through a pan-Asian lens. The museum has been highly lauded for its outstanding collection of masterpieces and steady roster of ground-breaking special exhibitions since its opening in 1997.

Asian Civilisations Museum is open daily from 10am to 7pm (to 9pm on Friday). Tickets begin S$12 for Singaporeans and PRs. For more information, please visit the official website. All images courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.


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