On a balmy afternoon in a quiet, leafy neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur, Emilia Tan stands tranquilly in her outdoor pavilion studio, hovering over a 2-meter stretch of white silk cloth. She stands nearly motionless, except for the graceful movements of her right hand, which is holding a copper-tipped canting — a pen-like instrument used to drizzle molten wax across the fabric’s surface.
Later, the cloth will be dyed with various colors and then boiled in water to dissolve the wax. The final product will be an original work of batik art, produced in virtually the same way that Malaysian artists have been making batik for centuries.
Emilia Tan is one of a large number of batik artists plying their trade across Southeast Asia. But she is also a retailer, magazine publisher, event organizer, educator and relentless promoter of the batik craft in Malaysia and around the world. Her entrepreneurial energy and passion have given her an influence far beyond her young age of 32. If there were a United Nations of Batik, Tan could definitely serve there as Malaysia’s ambassador.
While the dye-resist method of decorating cloth with wax can be found all over the world, its origins have not been clearly identified. The practice has been traced to early centuries A.D. in India and China, but the most well-established tradition of batik can be found in Indonesia, where the canting batik pen is thought to have been invented in the 12th century.
Batik is now part of the rich artistic heritage of the Southeast Asian region. In contemporary Malaysia, the batik tradition can be found in leading art galleries, interior design showrooms and fashion retailers. Tan’s shop and studio, myBatik, is one of many batik retailers in Malaysia’s capital city. Her studio also serves as headquarters for her quarterly magazine, myBatik, which is distributed across Malaysia and internationally. The magazine features interviews with batik artists from around the world, articles about batik history and colorful batik fashion spreads.
Tan began her creative journey as a young girl. What she describes as her “obsession” with art emerged while she was an elementary-school student. After graduating from high school in 1999, Tan took off on a two-year adventure, traveling through Asia and Australia, absorbing the artistic traditions and learning about the cultures.
Upon returning to Malaysia in 2001, Tan studied textile and fashion design at the Malaysian Institute of Art, where she first encountered the batik art form. While being tutored by two of Malaysia’s most respected batik artists, Fatimah Chik and Samsuddin bin Abu Bakar, Tan developed her own style, gaining inspiration from Australian Aboriginal art as well as traditional Malaysian themes and the European impressionist tradition.
Within a few years, Tan had set up shop in a small, home-based studio in Kuala Lumpur, where her batik creations attracted paying customers and garnered several awards. Eventually she moved into a shop based in the city’s National Textile Museum, which raised her profile even more. More recently, she has expanded into a 3,700-square-meter facility that includes a shop, courtyard, gallery and workshop.
The myBatik compound hosts visitors for free painting sessions, including children’s groups and patients from local hospitals. Tan is an ambassador for batik internationally as well — hosting tours to India and Thailand to connect batik artists and retailers with creative and business opportunities.
Truly, Tan is helping to build a worldwide fascination far beyond Southeast Asia for this beautiful, ancient art form.