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Interview with An Artist – A Singapore Story

In the 1960s, Mr. Sarkasi began his artistic career in Singapore: by selling his sketches in pasar malams (Malay for wet market), and outside of tourist spots for $3-$5 per sketch.

Now known as one of Singapore’s foremost fine artists, he has won a number of international awards, including the prestigious Pingat APAD by the Association of Artists with Various Resources. He has served on the board of Singapore’s National Art Council and Singapore’s Modern Art Society.

In this interview, we discuss Mr. Sarkasi’s unconventional beginnings, and delve a little bit deeper into Batik as an aesthetic and cultural art form.

CYC’s ‘Baron of Batik’ collection, featuring Batik fabrics painted by Mr. Sarkasi Said.

Many of your paintings feature detailed close-ups of Orchids. Do you paint these from memory?

Yes, I paint these from memory.

Singapore Orchids by Sarkasi Said.

Wow! Pardon this strange question, but do you spend a lot of time staring at flowers?

Actually, yes. I used to wake up in the Singapore Botanic Gardens with clusters of Orchids right before my eyes. I would stare at them for hours.

Sarkasi Said shows us his preliminary sketches. He often plans the composition of the images before painting on the fabric.

Wait, you slept in the Botanic Gardens?

Yes, this was in the 1960s.

In the 60s everybody slept everywhere and anywhere. It was normal to see people sleeping in the streets. Sleep happened when your eyes closed. This was during the time of hippie movement in USA and UK. I enjoyed the freedom. Sometimes I caught fish from East Coast beach for food. I made my own fishing rods out of branches and roots. I met many interesting people every day. Sometimes we went around together, but most of the time I went about on my own.

Sarkasi Said at the opening of his exhibition, ‘Always Moving’. Taken at NUS Museum, Singapore, in 2018.

Did you do much painting back then?

Yes. Every day, I was sketching and painting. I sold my pieces in the Pasar Malams (Malay for ‘Night Market’) for $3-$4 each. I also sold them at The Botanic Gardens and outside Haw Par Villa. I sold them mostly to tourists. I sketched mostly scenery and flowers. Orchids and flowers, boats on the pier, things like that.

How did you start painting?

I used to do a lot of sketching in my teens. One day, I was sketching at a local theatre. The owner there saw me sketching and asked if I wanted to try painting. I said sure, but I didn’t have paints. So, he gave me his leftover stage paints. From there, I started painting. I often made art with whatever I could find. I used charcoal that I found along the river pier to draw. Whatever materials I could find, I used to make art. I didn’t spend money on materials.

‘Always Moving’ by Sarkasi Said.

How did you go from selling your paintings at Pasar Malams to selling them for thousands of dollars at galleries?

In the 1960s, I sold a painting of a sampan (a small wooden boat typically used in East Asia) to an American lady for a few dollars, and forgot about it. Many years later, I went to a frame maker in East Coast and saw a painting being framed. It looked familiar and I realised it was my painting. I asked the lady if I could buy the painting back. I even offered her $3000 for it, and still she refused to sell it.

So that’s how you knew your paintings’ true value! How did you start specialising in Batik painting?

In the 1960s, I visited this Italian artist’s exhibition in Singapore. His paintings were all Batik! I thought, he’s Italian, and he’s doing Batik. I should be doing Batik! I started experimenting by using leftover wax from the shipyards, and using whatever leftover cloth I could find.

Before applying the dye, Mr. Sarkasi uses a ‘tjanting’ (pictured) to carefully drip wax onto the fabric. The wax separates the dyes in the fabric, which forms the outline of the images.

What do you love most about Batik?

I love the philosophy and meaning behind every graphic. For example, this Batik print (pictured below) is called ‘Slobokan’. It is a Batik print that you gift to somebody when they are feeling unwell. By giving it to them, you are wishing them ‘get well soon’.

Slobokan Batik print by Sarkasi Said.

What are some pivotal moments in your painting career?

In the late 70s, a man from USA bought 2 paintings from me. He encouraged me submit my paintings to an art show in Florida. I decided to submit a black and white Batik painting of the Singapore river. I didn’t expect to win first prize at the show.

After that, more collectors and galleries started collecting my work, and that’s how my paintings started gaining more international recognition.

Do you have any advice for young artists looking up to you as an example?

Keep going. Everything that happened to me happened because I kept going and did not stop. It is also important to make sure you excel at what you’re doing.

Mr. Sarkasi at home. Photo taken on 25 January, 2020, after this interview.

CYC’s Baron of Batik collection features hand-painted Batiks by Sarkasi Said. Made to measure shirts from the collection are priced at $470 for short sleeves, and $480 for long sleeves. The lead time is 1 month.

CYC retails at: CYC @ Capitol Singapore 13 Stamford Rd, #01-12/13/14 Capitol Singapore, Singapore 178905 CYC @ Fullerton Hotel 1 Fullerton Square, #01-06, Singapore 049178

Limited range available online at http://CYC.sg.

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