Singapore’s ACM Launches Batik-Themed Exhibition

“Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities” looks at the past and present of the beloved regional art form.

All images courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Art lovers with a soft spot for traditional textiles will not want to miss a special showcase that has just opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. Displaying more than 100 examples of batik from both overseas and local lenders, as well as rarely seen pieces from the city-state’s own national collection, “Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities” explores the history and culture of batik and batik making, and how it has contributed to building national identities in post-colonial Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Batik emerged in Java during the 17th century, with the rich repertoire of patterns developed in the central Javanese courts at Yogyakarta and Surakarta (aka Solo) becoming the foundation for most of the batik we know today. Visitors exploring the first section of the gallery should look out for three pieces on loan from Yogyakarta’s Sonobudoyo Museum, which has contributed traditional batik used by royalty in the West Java port of Cirebon. Besides masterpieces from the Javanese courts, the showcase features an extensive range of textiles, including the pagi-sore (day-night) and tiga negeri (three patterns) styles, cloths with seafood and animal motifs, bangbangan (red batiks), and creative designs from Chinese-owned workshops along Java’s north shore, collectively grouped under the umbrella term batik pesisir (coastal batik).

An early 20th century kain panjang adorned with a procession of figures, from Lasem, Central Java.

A section of the gallery dedicated to batik worn by older generations of Singaporeans.

The second section of Batik Kita explores the transformation of batik as fashion. Local visitors will be transported to yesteryear as they encounter reimagined everyday dress worn by their parents or grandparents, displayed against a backdrop of wall-mounted iron and copper batik stamps made by IB Batek Industrial, a Singapore batik-making powerhouse of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition also alludes to batik’s role as an expression of regional identity and soft power during international events; visitors to the gallery can admire the exquisite silk batik shirts worn by leaders of Singapore and Malaysia on significant public occasions.

Last but not least, 20 contemporary batik garments from BINhouse — an enterprise owned by a prominent Jakarta-based fashion designer — highlight the continuing evolution of the art form. Featuring silks woven on Sulawesi looms, the pieces on display show how BINhouse is reviving old motifs while incorporating additional techniques like weaving and needlework. Certain garments recall the style of southern Sumatra, where a single batik cloth is used to cover both the wearer’s head and body.

“Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities” runs until October 2, 2022 at the ACM, and tickets are priced at S$12 for Singaporeans and S$25 (US$18) for foreign visitors. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will offer curator tours, interactive activities, and workshops focusing on batik fashion, craft, and design to the general public; programs are available both on-site and online.

Contemporary batik garments from BINhouse on display.

A sarong bukitan with daisies and birds from Pekalongan, Central Java, from the 1930s–60s.

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