A Foreigner Found Our Historic Malay Textile Art So Fascinating He Started His Own Collection
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A patron of Asian arts and an avid art collector, John Ang has been collecting Malaysian textiles since 2014. Now showcasing his new collection of Malaysian textiles in an exhibition, we were intrigued to find out how the American citizen became so involved in textiles. of our country, some widely cherished and some even forgotten. In an exclusive interview, we could hear interesting stories and artistic values of the textiles he collected along his journey.
READ MORE: There is a textile exhibition displaying 12 types of Malaysian textiles in KL until 30 October
It all started with a disaster
John Ang has been collecting textiles for 53 years before really getting into Malaysian textiles. He vividly remembers that he had just returned from Bali to Taiwan and that he had brought home a beautiful textile that he loved. But, he didn’t know what the particular textile was. It doesn’t sound Indonesian to him but he didn’t think it was Malaysian. One thing is certain, it was magnificent.
However, there was an oil stain on it and when he cleaned it up himself by soaking it in mild detergent overnight, it got worse. The next thing he knew was that the fabric was ragged. It bothered him because he didn’t even know what kind of fabric it was. He only took a photo of it for memory. It was all a disaster.
Then, after a while, he happened to be in KL and saw in a local newspaper the same, but more breathtaking, textile that he had destroyed before. They were showing it to Tun Dr Mahathir at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Kuala Lumpur. If they show it to the famous politician, it must have been important.
After asking his Malaysian friends about it, he found out it was called a Tenggarunga kind of Limar Bersongket textile. Limar is a type of textile where patterns are created by first resist-dying a bunch of tightly bound threads in different areas before weaving them to form a required pattern.
Songket on the other hand, an additional weft (golden or colored thread) is decoratively sewn on top of the base fabric. Limar Bersongket is essentially the Limar fabric, with additional gold or colored threads sewn above. These types of textiles cannot be soaked for too long or brushed. It must be correctly cleaned up the right way.
He asked his friends to find a piece of Limar Bersongket for him. However, when they did, he found the price rather unreasonable. He told them to give him a day to think about it. When he researched and discovered the true extravagant value of the textile, the fabric was long gone, snatched up by another buyer.
He was frustrated again. He even flew from Taiwan to Terengganu to see it. All of these issues for an exuberant fabric made him even more addicted to finding the beautifully intricate textile. And so he began to dig deeper into the Malaysian textile world.
Now he’s over 13 Tengkarung in his collection but he still remembered the first ones he had fallen in love with, but which were not his. If you love something, let it go, right?
From Disaster to Mastery
John Ang is a citizen born in the United States to Singaporean parents. After earning his BS and MA in Asian Art History at the University of Michigan, he started out as an art journalist in Japan, then moved to Taipei to open a gallery of antiques, Asian furniture, textiles, ceramics and jewelry.
After almost 30 years at the helm of the gallery, he moved to Malaysia in 2018 to devote himself to collecting and researching Malaysian textiles. Now he has over 5,000 pieces of Malay textiles and 700 of them are now featured in his Splendor of textiles from the Malay world exhibition at Menara Ken, TTDI, until October 30, 2022.
Of Songket and Limar at Renda and Anyaman, he divided the 700 pieces into 12 categories to facilitate their identification and study by the public. He also put international pieces he collected near the Malay pieces so that visitors can make comparisons and see how the art has traveled from one origin and adapted to another.
The 12 categories on display are Songket (brocade), Limar (weft ikat), Telepuk (gold leaf applique), Tekatan (embroidery), Pelangi (tie dye), Ikat Loseng (ikat string), Tenunan (plain weave of stripes and checks, Linangkit (tapestry), Cetakan (prints), Batik (wax resin), Renda (lace) and Anyaman (non-spun woven vegetable fiber).
How is this collection so different from the others?
It is the first of its time, as it is a cross-regional collection.
“Most of the Malaysian textile collections are regional, while my collection is cross-regional. I have textiles from the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Persia, and even England, which are actually Malay. It is because of the Malaysian global market which was so strong once upon a time.
“You see, the Malay world was actually the sea (maritime trade), and the port cities were the outskirts. They were connected by the sea and because of this they became homogeneous. Malay cultures are everywhere, basically.
“For example, every Malaysian country in Dunia Melayu has laksa. But laksa differs by region due to their regional climate, herbs and taste. This is the Malay world, both diverse and homogeneous.
“But now that we’re apart, so many people don’t focus on the concept of the Malay world. Some will say that this country is considered Malaysian and what is not, so it is controversial. The periphery of the Malay world fades.
“So I specify through the similarities of the textiles. You can’t just focus on one region. For example, I saw this particular symbol in a Malaysian ditty and asked them what it was. They didn’t really know. But when I saw the same symbol in Banjarmasin in Indonesia, they can tell me the meaning and the story behind it. It is because they are so far apart that they have managed to keep the meaning.
“In Malaysia, development is so fast, a lot of things are forgotten and undocumented. So when you go beyond the region, you can rebuild your culture and bring back what’s yours. And that’s why my collection is different. It tells stories that sometimes the locals didn’t even know, but are actually related to them.
Some interesting textiles in his collection
No doubt, John loves all of his collections, but there are particular pieces that he adores because of the stories behind them.
One of its precious pieces is the Limar Berayat. It is very valuable because it contains inscriptions from the Quran and he is proud to be able to collect some of them. It even has a Sanskrit inscribed patola (a type of Indian fabric similar to Limar) put next to Limar Berayat to show the similarities between Malay and Indian textiles.
“Another precious piece that belongs to me is the Pelangi (Tie-dye) Sapu Tangan (handkerchief). It didn’t cost me much but I like it because it’s rare. I know I have the only one left in good condition because this stuff is usually worn, torn and discarded back in the day.
Also, the oldest piece of textile he has in the collection is the Indian patola from the 17th century. It looks like it’s torn because of its age, but in fact the fabric was purposely cut for use as medicine. Because they are so difficult to make and expensive, some believe they are imbued with magical powers that could heal people.
There is also a piece of Pelangi (tie-dye) called law where two or three colors are used in a fabric and a blank diamond or rectangular shape is created in the center. This law is usually strung over widows like a shawl, signifying that they are ready to remarry.
Hope for the future
John hopes his entire collection will find a home here in Malaysia one day. He dreams of finally handing over to a foundation here so that they can properly and carefully protect the Malay textile collection for the future generation to see. Things like these should be cherished and protected.
In addition, after completing this exhibition, it will then pursue a specific exhibition among the 12 categories starting with Songketfrom December to January.
Come and see the exhibition. Claim what the textile shares with your culture and be aware of it in order to be proud of it.
Come and discover your true identity as Malay textiles reveal all aspects of the Malay people.
John Ang, art historian and collector at TRP
The Splendors of Malay World Textiles
Date: July 24 – October 30, 2022 (3 months)
Venue: M Floor, Hall 1, Menara KEN TTDI, 37 Jalan Burhanuddin Helmi, Kuala Lumpur, 60000 Malaysia
Gallery opening hours: 10:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Open every day except Monday)
RM35 for adults
RM20 for students
RM50 for a group tour guided by John Ang himself (min 5 people in a group)
You can also request a free tour from John Ang students if you want to learn more about specific pieces.
Get your tickets here.
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