To Dye For

[This paper was first presented at “Batik Paintings – Public Talk by Dr. Zakaria Ali” organised by Galeri PETRONAS, on the 14 December 2005.]

This talk is centred on three artists: Yeong Seak Ling, Dr. Mohamed Najib bin Ahmad Dawa, and Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak. Through different paths they have arrived at a singular attitude toward painting batik. I shall explore their obsession by delving into the question of why they do what they do, hoping to uncover possible meanings embedded in the set of imageries they have chosen.

For the batik painter, a melange of geometrical and floral designs pretty much fills up the space. After adding a few characters, and a backdrop, the picture is done. These three artists have been at it for decades, urged by the idea that painting batik says a great deal about who they are. So enormous is this burden that they resort to release it by painting in a series.

Yeong Seak Ling: Protected it with heroic persistence

When an artist is thus committed, it means two things. One, the subject matter is inexhaustible, allowing for multiple treatments from a variety of viewpoints. Two, the subject matter has also created a clientele. These factors build the reputation of Yeong Seak Ling, for instance who has protected it with heroic persistence. Younger artists in Penang look up to him as one deeply committed to his art, to his particular way of making pictures. They recognise his highly distinguished technique of portraying the roughness of sand, or of dilapidated walls that seem literally textured. Or, the flushing motions of the pigeons’ wings that are so deftly executed that they defy gravity.

The same spirit to staggering details permeates the batik series, initiated by his need to celebrate this country. On the surface, this is none too surprising, because others celebrate it, too, by painting the Petronas towers, the Penang Bridge, the Minangkabau house, or the Putrajaya Mosque, sure emblems of Malaysian-ness.

For Yeong Seak Ling, however, his celebration is an affirmation he must make. Failing to do so would imperil his citizenship, a fear rooted in his Ipoh childhood. His mother died when he was three, whereupon his maternal grandmother raised him in Penang, away from his father, a fierce professional gambler whom he hardly knew, who had children with four other women. Yeong Seak Ling remembers the early hardships by the regular moving from one rented room to the next in Georgetown. The longest stretch was in the one above a coffee shop on Malay Street. Despite the name, the neighbourhood residents were mostly, if not all, Chinese. Insulated in the narrow back lanes, he was deprived of the opportunities to speak Malay, an inability that has never ceased to distress him. Subsequently, however, everyday reality crept in when he had to deal with people in the hospital, the police station, the land office, the immigration department, and the bus or train stations. And the limitations he endures cause much frustration.

His elder sister was banished to China during the Emergency, after which the family bore the stigma of having condone violence and bloodshed. His younger sister settled down in Canada, to start day one of a new life. Now left only with an elder brother whom he employs as a caretaker, Seak Ling would want no one to ever question his loyalty. He expresses his allegiance in the best way he knows how: by painting it in a set of many series. He starts off with the waterscape series, the tabletop series, the heritage series, the pigeon series, the beach series, the rock series, the old tree series, the rubber trees series (Plate 1), the kampung series (Plate 2), and the baby cot series (Plate 3). These images link him to the specificity of localities, to the very thing he wants others to know about the depths of his Malaysian roots in the earth that is Bukit Mertajam.

Dr. Mohamed Najib: Divine origins of human dignity

Initially a batik painter (Plate 4) with a superb sense of color, Dr. Mohamed Najib seeks his Malay roots to the mythical landmass called Langkasuka, the Dong Son drums, the Srivijayan sea ports, and the incantations of shamans. These are his points of reference when he paints batik designs, whose intricacies, he avers, are reflected in the woodcarving, the traditional dances, and the adat ceremonies, all of which have the curls and turns that are repeated and stylised and in his works, improved upon. Still, in painting batik he is going beyond the surface, into something highly esoteric. The meanings he has gathered are pretty private at the moment, but he would want to de-privatise them, bit by bit by articulating them in interviews and essays, hoping to win converts, and to open up minds. One in particular is the stylised bird image, the Inderawasih, found in the Dong Son repertoire dateable to at least the first century AD. As the god of thunderbolt, lndera reincarnates in ancient Malay rulers and their abodes. Mahkota indera is the royal crown; Indera putera is the town of Pekan, in Pahang where Dr. Mohamed Najib is from; Indera sakti and Indera mulia are pre-Islamic capitals of Perak; royalty in Negeri Sembilan addresses one another as Indera mengindera, the most royal of the royals. The divine origins of human dignity are panca indera, the five senses.

As I indicated in the catalog, Dr. Mohamed Najid has quitted making batik due to health concerns. Even working in large open rooms with ample ventilations the wax fumes are no less hazardous. Adopting acrylic, Dr. Mohamed Najib has to learn literally from scratch, rarely moving away from the ready made colours sold in tubes. Their rawness delights him in one instance, disgusts, in another. Still, he aims for the colour’s intensity, in relations to other intensities: the deepest of the Vermilion Red with the deepest of the Emerald Green, side by side in contrast, in a parallel dance, long trotted in one corner, syncopated in another.

Acrylics provide him with the opportunity to use a series of dots with which to articulate the shapes of leaves, the lines of squares, the contents of rectangles, and the veins of feathers. Any of these that turn out bad he repaints them with a coat of opaque blues or orange. Curls, squares, triangles, petals, rosettes, shoots, stalks, and buds are repeated, stay in a cluster or lunge sideways or upwards. Such motifs are assured by the consistency of acrylics (Plate 5). The clarity of Dr. Mohamed Najib’s batik is somewhat unsettling because it is often heavy-­handed, methodical, and premeditated. He admits feeling constrained handling the acrylics to achieve correctness, whereas using the canting he feels less so. Still he savours the spirit of chancy flow by having the “kepala kain” (Plate 6) a free run from one edge of the canvas to the other.

Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak: The Malay woman is salvageable

Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak capitalises on the batik worn by his model Nurkumalawati as a way of relating the ethos of budi bahasa Melayu, which he feels has been damaged by rapid urbanisation. The giggling Malay girls with their fancy hand phones he sees are but faint copies of the idealised Gadis Melayu he cherishes in his mind, one who is steep in idyllic setting, in rural tradition, in good manners, in God-fearing upbringing; one who has a deep respect for parents and elders, is family bound, and guilt-ridden. His paintings are a reminder that the Malay woman is salvageable.

Still, spurred by batik, Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak has been able to devote his time to doing portraits, as a source of income, with which to pay for food and rent. He is commissioned by tourists or friends, such as “Connie” (1996) (Plate 7). They either sit or supply him with photographs that he copies from. He ekes out a living by running a commercial gallery in the KOMTAR. Here in the deafening hustles in the heart of the Penang commercial world, he quietly gives art lessons, does occasional illustrations, and entertains customers. He tries his luck participating in competition, winning first prize the coveted “Mahsuri Price” of 30,000 ringgit in 1995. Earning a living with his art has never impeded his efforts to capture the elusive beauty of Nurkumalawati, in a series called “One Day in the Life of a Village Girl”. Out of the projected 40 works, he has finished 27. For this he has selected a sash of forty batiks for her to wear in a variety of scenes. A pencil sketch “Mak Tani” (2000) (Plate 8), followed by a series of oils “Bermain Congkak/Playing Congkak” (2000) (Plate 9), “Bunga Melati/Jasmine” (2001), “Beradhah/Rest” (2001), “Bertefakur/Contemplation” (2001), “Mengukur Kelapa/ Rasping Coconut” (2002), “Berehat Atas Batu/Resting on the Rock” (2003) (Plate 10).

Facial likenesses are tied in with the individual batik patterns that call for a different kind of articulation. Flat, the design is straightforward; folded, it recedes, overlaps, and hidden, leaving colours and shapes disconnected. Yet, such challenges provide Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak his profoundest pleasures.

Three different paths converge at the juncture of self-recognition, reflected in the batik that is akin to a fractured mirror beckoning to be reassembled, piece by piece.


Dr. Zak is an associate professor at the School of Fine Art, University Sains Malaysia, Penang. He collects verbs, mixes Prussian Blue and Hooker’s Green to get his black, and studies peoples’ feet as they walk in the mosque on Fridays.

First Published: 15.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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