SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Decoloniality, Global Batik, and Art's Politics and Publics in Malaysia

Simon Soon, Emelia Ong, Genevieve Gamache, Sau Bin Yap

Date: 5 June 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 5 June 2018Time: 7:30 PM

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: Wolfson Lecture Theatre (SWLT)

Type of Event: Seminar

Event organised jointly by SOAS Contemporary Arts Research Seminar and the Centre of South East Asian Studies (CSEAS). Supported by the 2017-18 Newton Mobility grant project "Constructing Decolonial Art Histories of Southeast Asia" (British Academy and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia)

Dr. Simon Soon (University of Malaya) will give a lecture titled "Crackling and bristling with energy: Decoloniality and Batik's Futurism" (abstract below), followed by a roundtable discussion on the relationship between art, politics, and diverse publics in contemporary Malaysia with Dr. Emelia Ong (University of Malaya), Dr. Genevieve Gamache (University of Malaya), Sau Bin Yap (SOAS), and moderated by Dr. Pamela Corey (SOAS).

Crackling and bristling with energy: Decoloniality and Batik's Futurism
Simon Soon

What is it about batik as an artistic medium that lends itself to a two-centuries-long project of ‘epistemic disobedience’ across the Indian Ocean? This talk takes as its premise that decolonisation begins the very moment colonisation, in all of its forms, takes root. What is characteristic of decoloniality, besides being recognised as acts of political resistance, is that it embeds within its thinking the seed of futurism, always actively informing the imagination of tomorrow. In this lecture, I propose that we may locate the beginnings of batik as a decolonisation project through its spread outside of the Javanese kraton (palaces) and the cottage industry of batik making they support. Mercantile Arab, Chinese Japanese and Dutch all constitute active artistic agents that have reimagined batik’s form and colour as well as how the fabric and design played an important role in the reorganisation of social life and sexual identities of 'pesisir' (coastal) townships beyond the reach of the kraton's sumptuary laws.

Moving into the late 19th and early 20th century, I consider the uptake and polemic of batik in Africa and India. In these examples, I liken batik’s role to print capitalism in fostering a kind of imaginary that vacillates between the nation and the region. Yet what the visual form affords is a kind of fluid space that made use of tradition in producing new imaginative vectors against the customs and rules of the colonial state. These are, in part, factors that contributed to the emergence of batik painting in the 1950s in Malaya.As an invented easel painting format, batik painting is named thus because artists who produce this format use batik drawing and colouring processes as a medium.

This format was immediately seized upon by the new postcolonial nation-state and promotedly heavily as the new modern art form of Malaya. Art not only shaped a new cultural identity and national imagination, it also had an economic role in shaping public interest in batik and the subsequent expansion of a local batik craft industry. The adoption of batik as a national was not a natural choice for Malaysia, given that batik-making was being only introduced as late as early 20th century in Malaya. Even so, just as batik gained new currency as a cultural signifier of a modern national identity, its circulation produced an increasingly flattened idea of tradition. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of batik's cultural past, mass-produced modern batik grew into kitsch.

In 1963, the very year Malaysia was formed, a young artist Patrick Ng Kah Onn enters into the fray by producing a series of batik paintings addressing homosocial themes as he searched for a different kind of social compact and moral economy for batik. The talk concludes by suggesting Patrick Ng's strategic queering was a demonstration of accomplishment in both Western classicalism and Eastern customary aesthetics while also rendering them strange through a dislocation of these conventions of knowledge in Malaysia. In doing so, Patrick Ng’s batik painting could be seen as a culmination of the medium’s long history of decolonisation, fulfilling its earlier futurist dream, at the same time as it channels new intimate vectors for the time to come of a region.

About the Speakers:

Simon Soon is Senior Lecturer in the Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. He completed his PhD under the Australian Postgraduate Award at the University of Sydney, writing on left-leaning cultural movements from the 1950s - 1970s in Southeast Asia. His broader areas of interest include comparative modernities in art, anthropology and art, architecture and urban histories, and art historiography. He has written on various topics related to 20th-century art across Asia and occasionally curates exhibitions, most recently Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond (2016), as well as Gerak, Rupa, Ubur, Penyataan (2017). He is also an editorial member of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, and a team member of the Malaysia Design Archive, a repository, education and research platform on visual cultures of the 20th century.

Dr. Emelia Ong is Programme Coordinator and Senior Lecturer, Visual Arts Program, University of Malaya. Dr. Ong has written extensively on Malayan art during the Independence period, with particular focus on the discourse of hybrid identity that appealed to key artists at the time. Her work reflects on the challenges of nationalism and what lessons art may offer for alternative political imaginations. She was one of the first students enrolled in the Masters of Visual Arts Program at the University of Malaya when it was established by the late art historian/artist Redza Piyadasa in 2003.

Dr. Genevieve Gamache is Visiting Lecturer in the Visual Arts Program, University of Malaya. Dr. Gamache taught at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh for
four years prior to joining the University of Malaya. During her time there, she has also served in various administrative capacities as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Asian
Studies. She brings with her extensive knowledge in postcolonial university education. Dr. Gamache did her PhD research at the University of British Columbia under Astri Wright, undertaking research on contemporary Thai Buddhist temples.

Yap Sau Bin is a member of Rumah Air Panas [RAP], an artist initiative based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He teaches at the Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University. His practice encompasses conceptual work, installation, performance, mapping project and curatorial work with RAP. He had received awards in the Young Contemporaries Arts Award by the National Art Gallery in 2000 and 2002. Yap had also worked on the Narratives in Malaysian Art volumes published by Rogue Art. He has also served on the jury panel for the 2013 Young Contemporary Arts Award; as nominator for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2014 - 2016, Arts Maebashi AIR Programme 2016-2018 and the 2017 Hugo Boss Asia Art award. Recent curatorial project includes ‘ESCAPE from the SEA’ organised by the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur. Yap is currently a postgraduate student in the History of Art & Archaeology department at SOAS.

Organiser: Dr Pamela Corey

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