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Of all the things to do in Singapore, a batik exhibition might not jump to the top of your list. But you would be missing out if you don’t check out this enriching activity.

Whether you’re a history buff or a fashionista, there’s much to appreciate about batik and the many stories it tells about the cultures and identities of Southeast Asia. In fact, this centuries-old decorative artform is so significant to the region – particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – it was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009. 

At Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities, a new exhibition at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, you can discover the stories, personalities and magic of the region through over 100 gorgeous batik pieces, including rarely seen textiles from Singapore’s National Collection


A history of royal batik

Believe it or not, the use of batik extends back to the Javanese courts of the 17th century, when it was first developed to pattern fabrics using wax and dyes. Even today, most batik is made from the many vibrant patterns created in Yogyakarta and Surakarta all those years ago – so you’re literally wearing a piece of history!

One of the most interesting pieces on display at Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities is the parang rusak Sri Sadono latar putih, a handmade batik cloth acquired directly by exhibition curator Lee Chor Lin and others years back while visiting the home of legendary batik master KRT Hardjonagoro or Go Tik Swan. Hardjonagoro is famous for creating the renowned Batik Indonesia collection that dates back to the 1950s, and is said to have inspired other batik designers such as Iwan Tirta and Obin (Josephine Komara).


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A highlight of the exhibition, this handmade textile was acquired at the workshop of iconic batik manufacturer KRT Hardjonagoro, in Solo, Java. Image credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

“[At his workshop], we witnessed his graceful and well-dressed batik makers drawing away in a meditative manner to sacred court music,” Lee recalls of a trip to Solo. “Mr Hardjonagoro believed strongly in creating an environment conducive for the ladies to make batik.”

Making a fashion statement with batik

If you’ve watched ASEAN political summits on the news, you’ve no doubt noticed many delegates from various countries – including Presidents and Prime Ministers – sporting batik fabrics.

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Batik shirts make a frequent appearance at regional summits in Southeast Asia, where they signal a shared identity and smooth over differences. Image credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

“We are separated by vast bodies of water, but the sea connects us through trade and the movement of people. Batik is certainly the most succinct physical expression of our shared identity,” Lee explains. “We see how our leaders choose their batik shirts carefully for different occasions and purposes. It helps to reaffirm a camaraderie, squares off differences and many a time offers a way to start dialogue between men on the street.”

The exhibition also invites fashion-conscious visitors “to reconsider batik as a contemporary movement”. In Singapore, for example, local designers are honouring the ’60s and ’70s fashion powerhouses that dressed their grandparents by using batik in their 21st-century creations. Style mavens will be delighted by the exhibition’s showcase of modern batik outfits by two homegrown Singaporean brands: Tong Tong Friendship Store and Baju by Oniatta. 

The former, founded by Tan Sheau Yun over 15 years ago, integrates batik fabrics with Chinese dress styles. Tan works with tailors in China to create distinctly Southeast Asian interpretations of silhouettes such as the cheongsam and the samfoo. Lee says, “In our exhibition, she made a 1920s Shanghai cheongsam capturing the graceful line with bold African Vlisco batik.”

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Batik has been modernised in Singapore by homegrown designers such as Tong Tong Friendship Store (second from left) and Baju by Oniatta (third from left). Image credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

Lee also urges visitors to check out the exciting looks of Baju by Oniatta, a bold mix of traditional Malay dress and international touches such as a formal Japanese kimono obi. “We feature two signature looks with her kemben-sarong-kebaya and the evergreen gender-fluid Utama sarong pants.”

Get hands-on with batik activities and guided tours

Creating a piece of batik isn’t as difficult as you think. Sign up for activities such as The Batik Workshop and learn how batik is patterned and dyed. You can also try the various tools to create your own digital batik cap.

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Visitors can try a hands-on batik workshop and learn to handle the tools and materials involved in making batik. Image credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

Visitors with children can hop onto the Batik Activity Trail, a family-friendly trail that explores batik patterns and fashions. The trail is suitable for children aged seven and above, and available in English or Malay, both online and onsite. 

To fully immerse yourself in the exhibition, join the curator tour led by exhibition curator Lee Chor Lin and explore the spectacular world of historical and contemporary batik. 


The Batik Workshop: Level 2 Foyer

Batik Activity Trail: Pick up a free booklet at the Front Desk on Level 1, or download the materials in English or Malay on the exhibition website.

Curator Tour: 7 September, 7:30PM

Tickets cost S$30 per person, and registration must be made in advance

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Enjoy Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities and other exhibitions at the Asian CIvilisations Museum. Image credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

Asian Civilisations Museum: Telling the aesthetic history of Asia

Batik Kita: Dressing in Port Cities runs until 2 October 2022 at one of Singapore’s most beloved museums. Nestled on the banks of the Singapore River, the Asian Civilisations Museum is the definitive museum of Asian antiquities and decorative art. It’s home to a plethora of highly rare artefacts in its permanent collection, and a steady roster of special exhibitions exploring connections between Asian civilisations, as well as between Asia and the world.

To refuel while exploring the museum, stop by for a casual meal at Privé, or a more upscale executive lunch or sit-down Chinese dinner at Empress. Both restaurants are located on the museum premises and offer alfresco dining options with views of the Singapore River.


Address: 1 Empress Pl, Singapore 179555 

Operating hours: 10:00AM to 7:00PM daily (to 9:00PM on Friday).


This sponsored post is brought to you by Asian Civilisations Museum.


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