Malaysian textile artist Fatimah Chik innovates and inspires
Celebrated Malaysian artist Fatimah Chik kneels on the living room floor in her tiny apartment in Kuala Lumpur. She slowly unrolls a length of cloth from its covering of white paper. Bit by bit, the glowing, intricate batik motifs are revealed.
The white paper seems woefully inadequate as protection for the precious piece; one of the few of her early works that are still in her possession. Most of her work is in private and corporate collections, museums, and galleries, in Malaysia and abroad. She can’t remember the exact date this piece was created, but thinks it was around 1980 or so.
Across town, three of her batik paintings, representative of 45 years of artistic creation and innovation, are featured in Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Artfrom Malaysia and Beyond, an exhibit running until June at the Ilham gallery. The gallery describes the exhibit as telling “the story of batik painting as a distinct modern art form that emerged in Malaysia and beyond from the 1950’s to the present day.”
Fatimah Chik at home in Kuala Lumpur
Ilham director, Rohan Joseph said “you can’t talk about Malaysian batik art without talking about Fatimah Chik. She occupies an important place in the retelling of the history of batik art. She definitely started a movement within the medium.”
I first met Fatimah at the Craft Complex in Kuala Lumpur in January. There was no breeze to stir the filmy lengths of brightly colored silk-chiffon hanging outside her studio while I waited in the shade for her to return from lunch.
Screeching mina birds disrupted the torpor of siesta as the bold geometric pattern of the tudung covering Fatimah's head appeared through the thick tropical foliage. She was followed closely by her pre-teen granddaughter, Malena.
While Fatimah showed me around the studio, Malena slung her lithe form, in jeans and a bright purple top, across a chair as artlessly as the silk chiffon pieces on the rack outside. She checked her grandmother’s phone. “Grandma, you have messages.”
Fatimah explained the batik process; how she stamps the fabric with hot wax and dips it in dye over and over until she accomplishes the effect she desires. She has added a signature twist to the traditional process by combining batik with shibori, an ancient Japanese tie-dye technique. She calls the marriage of methods, "shiboritik".
Fatimah and Malena took me to the drying rack outside the studio to show me their work. “You have to visualize first,” explained Fatimah. “Through your visualization, the final product is in your mind. It’s not on paper. It’s in your mind. I don’t plan anything. Everything is in my mind. So this is what I want. I want this kind of shape, like this diamond shape for this piece.”
Malena showed off a soft pink piece of fabric she’d been working on and in an outburst of youth-fueled confidence declared the technique “very easy, but you need patience as well.”
Fatimah was born on August 31, 1947 in Pontion, Johor, Malaysia. She had nine siblings; an even split between boys and girls. Her father was a telephone operator and her mother a fashion designer.
“My mother was so talented. She created traditional Malaysian clothing for all ages. She was known for her embroidery. My grandfather was a woodcarver. He built houses without nails. All the pieces fit together. The art was in my blood, but I just didn’t know it then.”
Art was the last thing on her mind when she entered the Mara Institute of Technology at the age of 20. “I wanted to do stenography,” she remembers. “It was a short course, I could be out earning a living in a year and a half.”
At that time, the institute was launching an applied arts program and recognizing that Fatimah had shown artistic promise in high school, they convinced her to enroll in the inaugural program.
“I didn’t know what applied arts meant,” she laughed. After six months of foundational training, she was given the opportunity to choose a speciality. She chose textile and fashion design, graduating in 1971 with a Bachelor of Design in Textile.
“I felt blessed because straight away after graduation I was offered a job at a batik research centre” she remembers. Her time there broadened her scope and she was introduced to the batik dye process. She continued to work as a textile designer. As recognition spread, she began to lecture at her alma mater, the Mara Institute of Technology.
Not long after graduation, she married her former art history professor, Redza Piyadasa. Piyadasa, who died in 2007, was a renowned artist, art critic and educator who is credited with initiating the debate on the national artistic identity of Malaysia.
Fatimah accompanied Piyadasa to Hawaii in 1974 where he would study at the University of Hawaii for two years. According to Chik, “that’s where it all began for me. It was there that I discovered myself and my cultural roots. I belonged to a much more diverse cultural group than I had realized,” she said, referring to the Nusantara archipelago that counts Malaysian among its islands.
In Hawaii, she found herself moving in circles of artists and art academics and began researching the Southeast Asian textile and motif traditions that would be strongly represented in her work from that time on. “These motifs, she said, “are signs and symbols and have their own philosophical and symbolical meanings of the world we live in.”
When she returned to Malaysia in 1977 she began to transfer her motif designs to batik blocks. She experimented with modifications of designs that held meaning for her. “It was during the eighties that I started the transition from batik as a craft to batik as fine art.”
Her work at that time was considered to be groundbreaking. Media attention and accolades followed as she exhibited nationally and internationally. “I didn’t have to try to sell my work then, she said. People were calling me and asking to buy it.”
During the 1990’s and into the 21st century, Fatimah was immersed in painting large serial pieces that incorporated batik collage. Rohan Joseph described these later career efforts as “an influential body of work.”
Throughout her artistic career, Fatimah maintained her role as an educator at the Mara Institute of Technology and later at the Malaysian Institute of Art. These days she teaches budding entrepreneurs at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex which is part artists’ village and part retail space that promotes the sale of Malaysian crafts.
The complex is run by Kraftangan Malaysia, the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation. She is collaborating with the organization on a project aimed at promoting the success of Malaysian craft entrepreneurs. As part of the project, entrepreneurs are using some of her signature batik designs on a variety of products from bags and shawls to tea sets.
Fatimah is venerated in the Malaysian art and fashion scene and her expertise is valued as a judge at competitions such as the Piala Seri Batik Design Competition in 2015.
She shares her apartment with her daughter and granddaughter. Malena is home from school today, sleeping late because she’s not feeling well.
Fatimah's art and batik fabric pieces cover the walls and her late husband’s books fill the shelves along a wall.
She’s pensive as she shares her carefully maintained collection of news clips and gallery catalogues with me. As she talks about her life, she is modest about her role as an icon, but clearly proud of her accomplishments. She mentions her late husband often, and with pride.
Fatimah looks puzzled when I ask her what’s next in her life. Then she smiles. “The same,” she says quietly. “I work, I survive.”