It's easy to get lulled by the soft breeze and clear turquoise waters of Teluk Kalong Kecil on Redang Island.
The bay, home to the Wisana Village resort, is sequestered from the island’s main beach, and it’s where you can spend hours whiling the time away.
But Wisana wants to do more than give visitors a slice of the idyllic island life. In 2015, it opened a small exhibition space called Tebeng Layar Gallery, bringing fine art to a place more known for its beaches and water sports.
This year, Tebeng Layar is exhibiting the works of batik artist Fatimah Chik. Redang Chapter explores her works from the past 30 years, showcasing pieces that include Nusantara Mandalara from 1989 to Gunungan (1994) and Kebaya Che Ros from 2004.
But more than just her art, Fatimah, 69, is preparing to share with islanders an art form named shiboritik. This is Japanese tie-and-dye and batik, and she believes it can be developed to become part of the island’s identity.
“Wisana was looking for something new to bring to Redang,” says Fatimah. “With my teaching and knowledge, this may be something that the community can call their own.”
CLASS OF THEIR OWN
Fatimah will hold a class on shibori from Sept 16 to 18. Previously a lecturer at the Malaysia Institute of Art before retiring last year, she also taught shiboritik at Institut Kraf Negara, but the approach in Redang will be a bit different.
Instead of art students, her audience will be islanders who are probably unfamiliar with either shibori or batik beyond wearing it.
One lesson she hopes to impart to them is the importance of craftsmanship, originality and authorial intent.
“There are many things to consider before we start making shibori. First, we must know how to fold. We have to calculate and estimate where and how we want the pattern to look like before we dip it in the dye,” says Fatimah.
But more importantly is the batik motif that will be stamped onto the shibori fabric. This block design(s) will have to be new and unique, and imbued with the things that are distinct to the island.
“When you have an idea or concept, you must do research,” she says. “The theme is Redang Island, so what is happening here? What’s on the island? What’s the identity?”
“Let’s not consider turtles because that’s standard for Terengganu. Maybe there’s a frog species that’s only found here. So you study its texture, compare the eyes and take the shape. You abstract ideas and come up with a block.”
There’s a size limitation to the block, which should not be bigger than 10 inches a side as it will be too heavy otherwise. Each wax stamping is done by hand, and the batik artisan must take care to apply the right pressure to avoid too much or too little of the wax getting onto the fabric.
“I used to be able to hold the block with one hand when I was younger,” says Fatimah. “Now I have to use both hands.”
Fatimah believes that shiboritik represents a progress from the batik with floral patterns as the norm. Such designs are not bad per se, but as a long-time judge for the Piala Seri Endon batik competition, she finds the current batik scene rather stagnant.
“Piala Seri Endon was set up to present batik to the world. This year’s competition will be the last for the time being; we will continue in 2018. We’ll do training camps next year. What the organisers have realised is that, after 14 years, there is no real progress, the winners are all the same,” she says.
Fatimah is keen to see Redang islanders make it to the competition in 2018. Such a recognition will surely raise their profile. The plan is to develop shiboritik into a cottage clothing industry, providing housewives and single mothers with a source of income.
But she won’t be doing it all by herself. Fatimah has an apprentice to help her with the heavy lifting while the team at Wisana will provide on-the-ground support. The resort, which was featured in the film, Redha, is founded and run by local Redang islanders and has close links with the community.
“When making a product like clothes, your concern is selling them,” says Fatimah. “When you’re making art, it’s about establishing your signature and identity. So clothes and art have different principles.”
She has no qualms about the switch. “My background is in fashion and textile design. As an artist, I use the fundamentals of batik with the concept of fine art. I spent the first 10 years as an artist figuring out how to do that. It was only when I was invited to show my pieces that I felt like I had figured it out.”
Last December she showed her artwork on a different stage, the catwalk, and debuted the Fatimah Chik collection at Kuala Lumpur Fashion Weekend. The venture was a collaboration with the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation and featured her batik pieces printed on clothes, accessories and tableware.
“For years I was with fine artists because I was married to one (the late Redza Piyadasa). I stopped doing fashion and design. It’s only now that I started doing fashion again but I do believe it is better this way,” she says.
MORE THAN PRETTY BEACHES
FOR Azhar Ahmad, general manager of Wisana Village resort on Redang island, Fatimah Chik is a link to both the past and future of batik.
“She may not be the only one practising batik art form but she’s brought back long-forgotten Malay-Nusantara roots in a way that no one else has.
He’s undaunted at the prospect of starting a batik industry from scratch, and is thankful for Fatimah’s generosity with her craft. He’s keen to see the locals prosper from the project once it takes off, but his motivation is more than about money.
“We want to contribute to the community in a more meaningful way. I hope that through art, batik and the subsequent research for the Redang motif and identity, everyone will have a deeper connection and greater appreciation of the island’s nature and history,” says Azhar.
“There’s more to this place than corals and snorkelling.”