An exquisite exhibition on Malay textiles by collector John Ang

by HAZATUL SYIMA HARON / Pics by Hazatul Syima Haron

ONE of the reasons why I like the newer Malay historical movies such as “Puteri Gunung Ledang” and “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” is the richness of the clothing on show. The colours, textures and materials lend a certain romance to the movies that would be dull without the beguiling costumes.

It was thus with much enjoyment that I spent a Saturday afternoon at the launch of the “Splendours of Malay World Textiles” exhibition, displaying the private collection of John Ang. 

Ang will be conducting workshops, guided tours and dinner showcases during the exhibition’s 3-month run

The collector and Asian art history expert is sharing with the public some 650 textiles divided into 12 major categories of textile techniques from the Malay world. Textiles of other countries, such as the Netherlands, that related to the Malay textiles are also on display.

The 12 categories are Songket, supplementary gold or coloured weft decoration; Limar, weft ikat; Telepuk/Prada, gold leaf application; Sulaman/Tekatan, embroidery; Pelangi, tie-dye; Ikat Loseng, warp ikat; Tenunan, weaves of stripes and checks; Tapestry (no standardised Malay name as every region has a different name for this weave); Cetakan, woodblock or machine prints; Batik, prints by wax resist; Renda, lace; and Anyaman, woven unspun plant fibre, usually for floor mats and textiles.

A US citizen by birth, Ang is the great-great-grandson of Major China Datuk Tan Hiok Nee — a textile trader and influential figure in Johor’s history in the 1800s. Ang realised that there wasn’t a lot of information about Malay textiles and decided to make it his main focus. 

The use of glittering gold is evident in a few of the displays

“I first started collecting Malay textiles in 2014 and was immediately enamoured by their beauty and complexities. It sparked my passion and I became an avid collector, travelling all over Asia to acquire pieces to add to my growing collection,” said Ang. “I realised at some point that I would need to be closer to my object of interest, so I moved to Malaysia in 2018 to further study and build my collection.”

Ang, who spent 28 years as the director of the Samyama gallery in Taiwan, found connections between distant Malay kingdoms, such as Makassar’s connection to Pahang, which he said showed a vast Malay world in the past that included Vietnam and Cambodia.

The historian is used to travelling around Asia to build his collection of textiles from different Malay communities of South-East Asia. “I’ve gone to many interesting and dangerous places such as Patani, Thailand, where I could hear gunshots while making my rounds.”

Don’t touch! Among the many vibrant and colourful outfits on show

What excites him is discovering beautiful textiles and sharing the information with the public. It took Ang three months, with the help of many who shared his dream in staging the show, to install the displays — not surprising at all, considering the delicate nature of many of the textiles.

This exhibition is a rare opportunity for the public to see some of the finest examples of beautiful Malay textiles, on display in 10 rooms of the gallery at M Floor, Menara Ken TTDI, Kuala Lumpur. It not only shows the major techniques of Malay textiles, but also displays a wide range of variations within each technique. 

Ang will be conducting workshops, guided tours and dinner showcases during the exhibition’s three-month run, and he hopes that Malaysians and international visitors will take the opportunity to visit the exhibition to learn and be inspired by the collection.

“This collection is my gift to Malaysians, who I have learned to love since I moved here. I hope it brings you joy, and empowers you to be confident of your culture, which has a beautifully rich and diverse history, something worth preserving and celebrating.”

Some of the related items and accessories that can be seen at the exhibition

The rare content and high quality of the exhibition are aimed at inspiring and harnessing the awareness and interest of the general public, textile enthusiasts, fashion designers, interior designers and textile producers. 

It is hoped that the visual effect of the size, quality, breadth of scope and variety of styles will stimulate and prompt people to promote, revive, restore and conserve the precious heritage.

I, for one, certainly gained much knowledge and appreciation of the history of Malay textiles. I also admired many of the beautiful Baju Kebaya and Baju Kurung that are on display. Certainly, this will influence my Aidilfitri outfit next year.

The exhibition runs daily till Oct 30, from 10.30am to 6.30pm. Entrance fee is RM35 and can be purchased from where you will also be able to book tours.