Is Batik art or craft?
Pharmaceutical research scientist-turned-creative entrepreneur Tony Sugiarta found his calling in the volcano-encircled islands of Java, Indonesia. After the recession, he delved into some travel writing. The attempt to sniff out stories in his homeland led him on a trail around batik towns. “As I talked to players in the industry from artisans to museum directors and business owners, I noticed everyone had a different definition of what batik was. Some people have stories they hold dear,” says Tony.
Together with lawyer Hannah Angsana, the two established aNerdgallery in Singapore. Despite her professional practice, Hannah shared the passion Tony had for the preservation of their culture. The platform specialises in traditional and contemporary textile art, focusing on batik extending into tenun to foster a renewed understanding of batik to a range of audiences.
Located at The Green Collective in Funan Mall, Singapore, aNerdstore’s designated rack distinguishes batik from tenun. Both textiles undergo resist methods to prevent pigment dye from breaching parts of a fabric; thereby creating an intentional colour contrast for patterns to form.
Tony notices that to some, batik is about beautiful motifs, nostalgic of something one’s grandmother used to wear. To others, however, the motif is just one part of an intricate process. Fabric that does not undergo a series of specific steps cannot be considered batik. It could just be a batik-like motif that happens to be printed on a cloth and that has become the norm in the commercialisation of textiles and fashion.
Pointing to a white print splashed across a blue batik dress, he explains, “this white colour used to be wax. The wax was removed after boiling the fabric. Batik undergoes the repetitive process of dyeing and waxing to create different prints.” While batik is widespread in Indonesia, often found in gift shops and local homes, the same technique also exists in China, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, and Egypt.
Tony takes a set of pouches to describe tenun—a woven fabric with different motifs and colours. “Individual threads are first coloured in a dye bath. Once this step is finished, they are then woven into a large piece of cloth.” He notes that “tenun is even more widespread in the world. It’s not indigenous to Indonesia. You can find it in parts of South America and Europe too.”
“Today is actually International Batik Day,” Tony tells me. Serendipitously our interview took place on the anniversary of batik’s recognition by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity exactly a decade ago. While Indonesian locals have long been accustomed to batik growing up, Tony observes a parallel learning journey for Singaporeans and foreigners taking an interest in the craft.
aNerdgallery began as an avenue for education by creating more awareness about the traditional textile and its contemporary application. “We conduct seminars, workshops, and exhibitions all in the hope to shift the perception that batik is just a raw material limited to clothing and home decor. It’s more than that.” By letting people witness the process involved in batik and textile making, they are garnering a new appreciation for the art.
“For collectors, batik is like painting essentially,” Tony describes while stretching a piece under the light, revealing many hues of a single colour.
Every batik displayed and sold has an origin, whether it’s a brief history of a dyeing technique native to a province in Indonesia or motifs that pay homage to the artists’ surroundings. Tony and Hannah take the time to inform patrons of the numerous lives that had a hand in the products they take home. They find the most fulfilment in the human stories and interactions that are intertwined with batik, then and now, all over the world, and among long-time collectors as well as beginner enthusiasts.
Setting up shop
Born out of the desire to make batik textiles more accessible beyond the walls of a gallery, Tony started by selling whole, uncut batik cloth and eventually moved to merchandise. “We now have ready-to-wear clothes for men and women, as well as accessories that range from scarves to tote bags,” he says. Their patrons now consist of young urban professionals who are conscious of causes to support and pieces worth investing in.
aNerdgallery also provides a source of income for batik practitioners. Shuttling back and forth from Singapore to Indonesia, Tony and Hannah work with local tailors and artisans to put together collections, introducing small changes to traditional techniques. Integral to the design stage, Hannah ensures a fresh take on the tradition by inventing unique pieces that professionals like herself can easily mix into their wardrobes.
“This is our own struggle and fight against fast fashion.”
One of a kind, multiple ways
Instead of mass printing and assembling pieces in bulk, they take the time to understand what consumers want and what works for the target market. Each piece becomes one of its kind, adding value two ways, where customers leave with something unique and the store avoids the overproduction of unwanted items. The platform also serves to connect consumers with emerging artists. Through collaborative collections, creatives can try experimenting or translating their work into fabric.
Rightfully at home at The Green Collective, aNerdstore advocates for sustainability by creating handmade pieces, some of which are multifunctional. From sundresses that double as shawls and skirt-wraps to vibrant coloured pieces made with natural indigo and pink dyes, Tony and Hannah continue to mindfully innovate for customers that similarly uphold heritage, handicraft, and ethical consumption.
aNerdstore is located in The Green Collective, Funan mall. For more information please visit https://www.anerdgallery.com/.