Why this Terengganu master crafter is preserving Malaysia's woodcraft art

‘This is my commitment to preserving our cultural legacy,’ says Norhaiza on the art of telepuk. Photos: Aishah Mohmad Afandi

With nearly four decades of experience as a master woodcarver, Tokoh Kraf Negara (National Craft Master) 2022 award recipient Norhaiza Noordin remains passionate about his niche craft.

“Woodcarving is a language,” he says, “It is a way to connect with our ancestors, and to narrate the tales and artistry so that our heritage remains. I’ll keep making fine art wood carvings for as long as I can,” says Norhaiza, 60, in an interview in Kuala Lumpur, recently.

Born in Terengganu, Norhaiza, who specialises in fine art wood carvings, demonstrated his skills at the Hasanah Gold Threads Awards (HGTA) exhibition booth. The exhibition was held in conjunction with the fourth edition of CIMB Artober 2023 at the Malaysia International Trade and Exhibition Centre (MITEC) in Kuala Lumpur. CIMB Artober is an annual three-month art, culture and lifestyle initiative to support the local contemporary creative arts scene.

At the event, Norhaiza showcased the art of telepuk, or textile gilding, where cloth is imprinted with floral motifs in gold leaf or dust. He is among the few remaining woodcrafters skilled in carving motifs onto the wooden stamping blocks used in telepuk.

Woodcarving is a beautiful traditional craft that must be sustained and nurtured. Photo: FilepicWoodcarving is a beautiful traditional craft that must be sustained and nurtured. Photo: Filepic

His eyes lit up with excitement as he spoke passionately about his love for woodcrafting and the preservation of cultural heritage. His expertise lies particularly in crafting keris handles and decorative panels adorned with intricate motifs.

“Some people might consider my woodcrafting style kolot (or old-fashioned), but I don’t mind. I consider myself a guardian of this heritage. Art must be preserved.

“We must protect our nation’s heritage, just like how we must preserve recipes of traditional kuih such as onde-onde, lompat tikam and kuih lapis. Even in the era of fusion cuisine, we still cherish traditional recipes because they serve as an introduction to our rich history. Food is also an integral part of our Nusantara legacy,” says Norhaiza, fondly known as Pak Jah.

Keeper of tradition

The father-of-two comes from Kampung Raja in the coastal town of Besut, Terengganu. The village he hails from boasts a vibrant history of nurturing traditional arts and crafts, serving as the ideal setting for Pak Jah to commence his creative odyssey.

“After completing my secondary education, I had the privilege of learning woodcrafting from my first mentor, Wan Su Othman, and his son, Wan Po. Later on, I trained under renowned woodcrafters like Tengku Ibrahim Tengku Wok, Abdul Rahman and Latif Long. I learned the skills from these great craftsmen and I aspired to be like them,” says the soft-spoken crafter.

In 1992, he began to study both the techniques and philosophy of the Malay arts with renowned woodcrafter, the late Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein.

Today, Pak Jah’s woodworks – made mainly with merbau and cengal wood - adorn private residences, palaces, museums and mosques across Malaysia and around the globe. He has also crafted a large installation at the Oxford Islamic Centre in Oxford, United Kingdom. He has had the privilege of interacting with royalties, including King Charles III and Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah.

Norhaiza aspires to revive the fading art of telepuk, so future generations can learn it.Norhaiza aspires to revive the fading art of telepuk, so future generations can learn it.

His works are documented in the 2003 book Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving.

In 2011, Pak Jah clinched the title “Adiguru Kraf Ukiran Halus”, an award bestowed upon any master craftsperson in Malaysia by the government, under the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry’s Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation.

“Winning awards is a humbling recognition of my journey. But the true reward lies in the connection I forge with my craft everyday. It is a journey of dedication and passion.”

In the last four decades, he has participated in numerous international exhibitions and collaborations, showcasing the beauty and diversity of Malaysian woodcraft.

Cultural legacy

In May, he showcased the art of telepuk at the Malaysia’s Heritage Crafts exhibition during London Craft Week.

“Telepuk is not just a lost art; it’s a unique piece of our heritage worn by sultans and queens. I’ve embraced the responsibility to revive it so that it doesn’t vanish into obscurity. It’s my personal commitment to preserving our cultural legacy,” says Pak Jah.

'Winning awards is a humbling recognition of my journey,' says Norhaiza (third from right). Photo: Norhaiza Noordin'Winning awards is a humbling recognition of my journey,' says Norhaiza (third from right). Photo: Norhaiza Noordin

There are over 30 telepuk patterns, each one inspired by blooming fruits such as jackfruit, durian and coffee flowers.

These blocks are made using jackfruit and jelutong wood, known for their excellent workability. Pak Jah possesses approximately 50 woodcarving tools in various sizes, including chisels, gouges and veiners.

He firmly believes that the National Craft Institute can play a role in equipping the youth with woodcrafting skills, although he emphasises that this profession demands extensive hard work. The numerous scars on his fingers and wrists are testament to the occupational hazards he had faced.

“Training centres have witnessed a rise in enrollments, despite the prevailing notion that this craft lacks glamour and offers only modest remuneration. While mastering the craft is essential, aspiring entrepreneurs must also grasp business aspects such as pricing and marketing to truly prosper.

“Craftspeople often undercharge, failing to realise the true worth of their skill and mastery. Earning a substantial income, such as RM5,000 a month, remains a challenge due to the labour-intensive nature of the craft. Bridging this knowledge gap and empowering our crafters with both traditional skills and modern business acumen is crucial. And if we can do that, then artistry and business can go hand-in-hand,” he adds.

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