Dazzle and diversity of Malay textile world shines in a new exhibition


'Kelingkam' is a traditional embroidery technique that employs the use of a flat metallic ribbon coated with a gold or silver film, on fabrics like satin, damask and velvet. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

No one can say that Asian art historian and textile collector John Ang doesn’t dream big.

His latest – and most ambitious – exhibition Splendours Of Malay World Textiles at Menara Ken in TTDI, Kuala Lumpur, gathers 700 textiles that are divided into 12 major categories of textile techniques.

The exhibits on display are selected from Ang’s personal collection, arranged to tell different stories of a traditional art form so rich and diverse, but often underestimated and overlooked.

Ang has been collecting textiles of the Malay world since 2014 and has over 5,000 pieces in his collection.

His love affair with these textiles started with a curious piece that caught his eye when he was based in Taiwan, where he lived for nearly 30 years.

'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' showcases 12 categories of textiles from the Malay world, all from the collection of textiles collector and expert John Ang. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong 'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' showcases 12 categories of textiles from the Malay world, all from the collection of textiles collector and expert John Ang. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

“The fact that it was Malay but looked Cambodian drew me to it. This particular piece was woven by the Cham people of Cambodia, commissioned by the King of Siam and given to royalty of neighbouring countries. This textile made me look for similar pieces, and voila, my collection expanded,” says Ang, who is an American citizen.

Researching Malay textiles

Ang was born in the United States to Singaporean parents, studied Asian art history in university, worked in Tokyo as an art journalist for the Japan Times, then established a gallery in Taipei that specialised in Asian antiques, furniture, textiles and ceramics.

He moved from Taiwan to Malaysia in 2018 to devote his time to collecting and researching Malay textiles.

“It has worked out very well. I am meeting so many interesting people with varied backgrounds and different ways of thinking. In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, I feel the way of thinking is much more homogenous. Malaysians are much more friendly than I imagined and Malaysia is one of the most interesting places on earth, as it is at the juncture of East and West,” says Ang.

He is still adding pieces to his textile collection in his studio space in Kuala Lumpur.

Visitors to 'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' will be greeted by a showcase of songket baju Melayu (Malay clothing with gold supplementary weft decoration) from the Malay peninsula, mostly woven in Terengganu and Kelantan. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee HongVisitors to 'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' will be greeted by a showcase of songket baju Melayu (Malay clothing with gold supplementary weft decoration) from the Malay peninsula, mostly woven in Terengganu and Kelantan. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

The research work is ongoing and the collection is 85% complete, he estimates.

Ang reckons he has most of the main textiles, with just a few missing pieces, including the five-layered embroidered anyaman (plaited pandanus leaves) square mat that is used for akad nikah, the embroidered sejadah (prayer mat) and a tree of life painting from the Coromandel Coast in South-East India, which was the inspiration of his Malay batik pieces with the tree of life pattern.

It is obvious that Ang admires and appreciates the beauty of these textiles, but his interest is more than just visual appeal. What piques his curiosity is the deep mystery behind these textiles.

“Malay textiles records and history are very scattered and incomplete. Until today, there is no encyclopedia for these textiles unlike Indian textiles, for instance. This project is an interesting one to me because I love discovering unexpected connections, that then become topics of discussion when I meet with friends from the involved areas.

“I think these connections can bring people together, like when Malaysia and Indonesia realise just how much their ancestors connect. We have more in common with each other than many of us think, and it helps in understanding each other better,” says Ang.

Trans-regional thinking

During his research, he noticed similarities in the textile structures and motifs of different lands despite these places being far apart from each other, and became convinced that a trans-regional approach would be necessary to do justice to such a project.

Splendours Of Malay World Textiles encompasses textiles from the areas of South Vietnam, South Cambodia, South Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sumbawa, West Flores, South Sulawesi and South Philippines. It traces their origins, their interpretations, inspirations and influences from the textiles of other countries.

Ang hopes that the 'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' exhibition will offer a broader perspective to visitors as to the shared history and connections of these textiles and techniques. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon HinAng hopes that the 'Splendours Of Malay World Textiles' exhibition will offer a broader perspective to visitors as to the shared history and connections of these textiles and techniques. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

“There are certainly many more countries, but these are the places that speak a similar language and also produce similar textiles,” notes Ang.

To enable direct comparison, textiles of other countries that are associated with these Malay textiles are on display, alongside jewellery and accessories, and objects such as printing blocks made of wood and metal.

The exhibition presents 12 categories which include the more familiar – like batik (prints by wax resist) and songket (supplementary gold or coloured weft decoration) – to the lesser known ikat loseng (warp ikat), pelangi (tie-dye) and tapestry. The other categories are limar (weft ikat), telupuk (gold leaf application), tekatan (embroidery), tenunan (weaves of stripes and checks), cetakan (woodblock or machine prints), renda (lace) and anyaman (woven unspun plant fibre).

The oldest piece in this exhibition is an Indian print from Gujarat in India, which dates back to the 17th century.

“It is very similar to some pieces in other notable collections which have been Carbon-14 tested,” says Ang.

An exhibit shows how trans-regional trade in the Malay world influenced the designs for warp ikat. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee HongAn exhibit shows how trans-regional trade in the Malay world influenced the designs for warp ikat. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

This is his first major Malay textiles exhibition in Malaysia and he hopes that it will help people see things from a broader perspective. In 2019, he organised an exhibition on Malay kelingkam embroidery held at the Terengganu State Museum.

Tracing the origins of the cultural and historical often give rise to debate and controversy, but Ang considers it part of the adventure.

Splendours Of Malay World Textiles showcases the intricacies of textiles from the Malay world, the rich history of these traditional techniques and the resplendence of the finished products.

He admits that negotiating culture, where heritage and ownership rights are often subjected to heated debates, can be a challenging task.

“But instead of getting defensive and eradicating the origins, people should embrace the journey taken. How can you empower yourself if you are unaware of your assets and do not know how much you have in your cultural bank?

“This exhibition is a dream come true, a vision that I conjured that became a reality, and a gift I want to share with all. It is about finding your identity and opening up your awareness to the textiles and stories that I hope you will be proud of. It is about discovering previously unknown connections.

Wooden printing blocks for woodblock printing on display at the exhibit. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee HongWooden printing blocks for woodblock printing on display at the exhibit. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

“I also hope more artists, fashion buffs, architects and graphic designers will benefit from and make use of my exhibition textiles as part of their cultural repository that they can refer to anytime,” says Ang.

He views this exhibition as a labour of love where insight meets imagination, where new links are forged and long-forgotten connections are revived.

“Everyone has a mission in their life, and if you live with your mission, you connect with your bliss,” he concludes.

Splendours Of Malay World Textiles is on at Menara Ken, Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 30. Entry: RM35. More info: here.

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