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Let This Batik Master's Paintings Transport You to Nanyang Singapore

(Original article appears in Mandarin on Lianhe Zaobao Newspaper, print edition, on 28 Feb 2020, and on Lianhe Zaobao online: https://www.zaobao.com.sg/news/fukan/fashion/story20200228-1032646 ) Having painted several of Prime Minister Lee’s batik shirts, the local batik maestro Sarkasi Said has recently collaborated with established local tailor, CYC Made to Measure, for a series of made-to-measure shirts, hoping that more Singaporeans will be able to wear Sarkasi’s work for themselves and rekindle the passion for batik in our citizens. Let us hear the legacy of Sarkasi’s 81 years of history.

The red and white batik-painted shirt worn by PM Lee at the previous year’s National Day parade left memorable impressions on Singaporeans. The blooming Vanda Miss Joaquim design was hand painted by batik master Sarkasi Said. Through the connection with CYC Made to Measure, PM Lee’s tailor, Sarkasi has painted PM Lee’s shirts on several occasions. Previously, his batik works were worn by founding Prime Minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, and the late presidents, Mr. Ong Teng Cheong and Mr. Benjamin Sheares.

This month, CYC has officially collaborated with the octogenarian artist, launching the “Baron of Batik” series. Each batik artwork will be handpainted by Sarkasi, and after which, made into a shirt by CYC, allowing more Singaporeans to wear the batik master’s work on them.

The fourth generation successor, product manager Cara Chiang revealed the prices for each of the hand-painted shirts, at $470 for the short sleeve, and $480 for the long sleeve shirt. From painting to sewing, the process takes about a month. CYC will cut the fabric based on the individual’s measurements and after inquiring about the customer’s preferred design and color, hand the fabric over to Sarkarsi for his creative output and interpretation.

The theme painted by Sarkasi consists of mainly Orchid and some tropical plants. He said with a smile, ‘I will take the age and preference of the customer into consideration, to choose the color and design. But ultimately, as the artist, my methods and interpretation dictate my artistic direction. Perhaps the final product is not what the customer had imagined, but within, it contains my personal values. Hopefully, both parties will be satisfied with the work.’ What was not articulated was that each handpainted piece of the Sarkasi shirt is akin to buying a piece of art, rather than commissioning the artist to paint the art the customer has envisioned. In the 70s, Sarkasi had worked with an apparel merchant to export his batik shirts to countries like the United States and China. He said, ‘back then, my creative output was tremendous, and I could paint up to fifty pieces of batik shirts in a day. However, the partnership was heavily commercialized, and I felt reduced to a role of a mere painter. Eventually, I ended the partnership.’

BATIK AS AN ART FORM

Sarkarsi said, through this collaboration with CYC, he hopes to rekindle the passion for batik in Singaporeans. As a child, his grandmother imported batik fabrics from Java, Indonesia, and he followed his grandmother to sell the fabrics door to door. In that era, all races appreciated the cultural value of batik. He said, ‘from the pattern and designs of the batik, people could tell which fabrics were suitable for different occasions. Some were worn for funerals, and some were specially worn for the groom and bride at a wedding. Some designs, such as the Slobokan, was intended for covalescing patients, to wish them a speedy recovery. Wax is used in designing the outline of the batik, and within which, the details can contain different meanings, such as well wishes, longevity, and dots can represent fortitude or perseverance.’

After understanding the meanings and rules, the work of an artist is to break the mould and establish his or her own interpretation and style. Sarkasi revealed that, he melds different patterns, designs and features of different batik prints of different regions in Indonesia, transforming them into his own art. His many monochromatic batik shirts that he designed, sketched and painted were representative of the combinations he had explored. He said, ‘understanding the origins of batik, the meaning behind the designs and purposes, is essentially discovering the histories of different tribes and cultures. But we cannot remain mired in these traditions. Rather, by breaking them, then can we spread the word of batik. Batik itself is an artform. Do you assume that batik originated from Indonesia? Actually, in the Egyptian pharoah’s tomb, archeologists excaved fabrics similar to batik. In Africa, Middle East, Indonesia, South East Asia and even Japan, there are traces of batik. Batik is merely than a resist dyeing technique that was made renowned by and associated with Indonesia.’

HIGHLY EXPERIMENTAL AND UNORTHODOX

Sarkasi is a self-taught batik artist. He started with impressionist painting, and in 1977, he saw the Italian artist Ottavio Romanio’s batik artwork, and had an epiphany. ‘If westerners can paint using batik techniques, why don’t I try it? Of course, eventually I found that this resist-dyeing technique doesn’t belong to Indonesia, it belongs to the world. However, back then. I didn’t even know the basics of batik.’ Thus, he went to places like Indonesia and Malaysia to visit batik workshops, and learnt via observation. He stood under the tree watching accomplished old ladies completing large pieces of batik fabrics. ‘The more you paint in batik, the more you will be drawn into the painting. I was equally enchanted just by observing. The ladies would not freely share the type of wax they used to outsiders. After memorizing the process, I came back to Singapore to experiment. Back then, Kallang river had shipyards which used wax to repair sailboats. I went and asked for some wax for experimentation. When I first started out, my technique was lacklustre, and the wax I had mixed would crack and caused the paint to bleed. That turned out to be a beautiful mistake; I found that these cracked patterns are also beautiful, and eventually they became my art style.’ After continuous experimentations, he now uses the finer and softer paraffin wax. ‘Paraffin wax is easier to wash off, and it doesn’t cause harm to the body’.

Departing from the traditional, intricate batik designs, Sarkasi’s batik style expresses more on themes, carefreeness, nature and expressiveness. His artistic direction compelled him to discover highly expremental, unorthodox resist-dyeing techniques. He smiled and said, ‘I am a kaypoh (busybody in Melayu) artist, I like to dabble here and there. For instance, After coloring, I will use a piece of paper to absorb the dye, then more and more papers to layer the colors. I will also pave a layer of sand on the cotton, spraying different dyes, and after the dyes have settled, removing the sand achieves a different effect.’

PASSION FOR DRAWING ORCHIDS

Sarkasi is impassioned about drawing Orchid flowers, and he needs no reference to get started. This is due to his past life sleeping in parks and the Botanic Garden. After his parents divorced, his grandparents became the caregivers of him and his sister. Since they were working, they were rarely at home, and he became used to roaming around freely. In the 60s, he left home to earn a sole livelihood. He said, ‘When I was tired, anywhere that I could close my eyes, that became my bed. I was often sleeping overnight in the botanic garden, and waking up, I would find clusters of orchids on my head. I would scrutinize them for hours, and engraved their images into memory.’

Although Sarkasi learnt the basics of drawing in school, his materials came from the streets. Discarded charcoals became his tool; when a theatre personnel saw that he could paint, he gave Sarkasi the leftover paints used for painting theatre backgrounds. In his teens, Sarkasi earned a living by pedelling his work in night markets, Botanic Garden and Haw Par Villa. Back then, his works were drawn with pastels, with subjects such as floras in Botanic Gardens, street sights of Singapore, or boats along the Kallang River. Those who bought from him were mostly tourists, and the kins of British Army personnels stationed in Singapore. Back then, each piece was sold from three to five dollars.

Many years passed, and Sarkasi chanced upon his older artwork in a picture frame shop. Then, he offered three thousand dollars to reunite with his work that was sold for a few dollars, but he was rejected by the shop owner. He siad, ‘from then, I saw the value of my own creativity, and never sold my pieces for cheap again.’

Sarkasi’s bibliography is full of tales to tell, however this article cannot enumerate them all. Instead, you can buy a piece of his batik-painted shirt and wear it for yourself, akin to wearing his life story on yourself, and let the batik master’s work spread across the island.

CYC and Sarkasi’s collaboration, ‘Baron of Batik’, will be showcased in CYC Capitol Piazza, #01-12/13/14. Call 63363556 for more details.

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