Sunday, 29 September 2013

Tales, Trails and Travels

This week I escaped from the kampung to see a little more of Malaysian culture and to take the opportunity to track down something I've been looking forward to seeing for several years.....
First stop was KL to the Muzium Negara, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in this location this year, and another trip to the Muzium Tekstil Negara.  In both museums I was particularly interested in the crafts of the orang asli, the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia. Officially there 18 tribes which comprise three groups: the Semang,  the Senoi and the Proto-Malay. Here is a detail of a Mah-Meri (Senoi) women's skirt made of origami mengkuang leaves.
Origami skirt worn over a bark cloth skirt made from Terap tree.
Origami ornaments such as headdress, shoulder sash and cummerbund are also worn. Another display of intricately woven hats caught my eye.  Unfortunately no information about them on the display.

FInely woven hast with bright red pom-poms
From KL I caught the bus to the Cameron Highlands with two items on my agenda - the first to walk the final trail taken by missing textile designer Jim Thompson, and the second to finally come face to face with the Rafflesia,  the largest flower in the world. 

The Cameron Highlands occupies an area the size of Singapore, and are situated 200km from Kuala Lumpur in Pehang, bordering Perak. They are the highest point in Malaysia - 1135 to1839m above sea level - and are therefore a popular cool climate destination for nationals and tourists alike and are the site of many large tea plantations. The bus ride there can be a terrifying 4 hour ordeal, on very windy narrow roads with fearless bus drivers overtaking anything and everything on the way. Needless to say, not pleasant for those who suffer from motion sickness (or for those who don't!).  The best way to get through it is probably close your eyes and ears and try to sleep as soon as possible. 

View of one of the Boh Tea plantations
Jim Thompson was an American businessman who revitalized the Thai silk industry in the 50's and 60's, saving it from extinction. Although his work lives on, he himself disappeared whilst on a trip to the Cameron Highlands in March 1967.  After attending a church service in the morning, he left Moonlight Cottage in the afternoon for a stroll.  
This is Sunlight Bungalow, Moonlight Bungalow in the background.
Although he knew the area well, and was a keen walker, no trace of him was ever found.  Several theories exist - that he was eaten by tigers; that he had been kidnapped by communists; that he was a victim of a hit-and-run accident and his body hidden; that he was killed by an orang asli trap; that he had planned his own disappearance or even committed suicide. Unfortunately we may never know as no trace of him could be found despite hiring groups of orang asli  trackers, police, military, and foreign experts. The two cottages that he and his friends occupied that weekend - Moonlight and Sunlight Bungalows - have new owners who do not allow visitors in, although you can rent them to stay in, although at the time of my visit they were still undergoing renovations.

We were not allowed past the Sunlight Bungalow unfortunately.
 There was no silken thread to follow down that trail, so I then went in pursuit of the Rafflesia that I had really wanted to see last year when I was in Sarawak. To find the Rafflesia you must book to an organised trek with a tour guide, as these plants are found deep within orang asli land.  We drove for about an hour to get to the kampung and then the walk into the jungle was a hot and humid hour and a half. The orang asli scout out flowering Rafflesia for the trekking companies, and this eco-tourism has now become a valuable source of income for their kampung. High priority is placed on not disturbing the environment as we trek in and out in order to preserve it for the future.
Yes, I do know which is the more stunning redhead!
More information about the Rafflesia can be found here but basically this Southeast Asian plant is parasitic on the members of the genus Tetrastigma.  It has no roots or leaves and lives unobserved inside the stems and roots of its host.  It only becomes visible when the buds break through the bark and develop into the largest single flower in the world.  

A view inside the Rafflesia
This Rafflesia is probably Rafflesia arnoldii  (there are 28 species of Rafflesia)  and it was around two days old when we came to meet it.  It is more commonly known as the 'corpse-flower' because it exudes a distinct dead meat smell in order to attract its pollinators, the carrion flies. I did put my nose inside and it had a very funky smell, although this gets stronger at night.

Beautiful ornamentation on the inside and on the 'petals'
Nearby we found another bud getting ready to unfold, although that would probably take a few more months, as they take up to a year to develop. 
Rafflesia bud getting ready to open.
I caught the fast train back to Sungai Buloh from Ipoh, in Perak which developed during the 19th century through tin mining.  It has some lovely old Straits Chinese shop-houses, although many in Old Ipoh are derelict and look ripe for demolition.  However, there were a few trendy cafes that had managed to keep the old facades and embrace the new on the inside.
Old town Ipoh kedai
Back in Rimbun Dahan I found this banana flower which had broken off in the wind. I love it's sculptural form and rich colours.
The banana flower, or bunga pisang.
I was also back in time for a large dinner party with some visitors from the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was also time to say good-bye to Carlo Gernale, who has finished his 3-month residency and flies back to the Philipines. Selamat tinggal, kawan saya.

sehingga minggu depan

Monday, 23 September 2013

Warna-warna Malaysia!

Colours of Malaysia! 
We had a public holiday for Malaysia Day last week and I spent the whole day dyeing fabrics from several of the plants I had previously tested.
Natural dyes from the RImbun Dahan garden
If you have been following the blog you will know that I have been testing two different types of alum mordants - Potassium aluminium sulphate and Symplocos, a plant bio-accumulator of aluminium. As you can see from the above photo, there are doubles of each fabric type in each colour in the front row. As I had never used the Symplocos before I was really testing it for my own peace of mind to see how it mustered up against PAS. My results above show there is absolutely no difference between the pairs of samples to the naked eye. The fabrics in the back row are more naturally-dyed swatches not included in the tests. During my last month here I will continue dyeing fabrics that will eventually be used for Rimbun-inspired artworks.

I have also been sketching an painting some of the unusual flora in the taman sari

However, for colour you just can't get any better than an art opening, and in particular the opening of the Art Expo Malaysia 2013. Now in its seventh year, it showcases hundreds of artists from all over the world (except Australia) and this year included works by Picasso, Miro, Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst to name a few.
Filipino artist Carlo Gernale and I at the VIP Preview 
I was lucky enough to be invited to the VIP Preview opening through Carlo's friend, Malaysian artist Seah Ze Lin, who had work in the g13 Gallery stand.  Zelin also shows work at Taksu Gallery.

Zelin and his wife in front of his work at g13 gallery stand.
I have to say that my eyes were constantly diverted from the artworks by the colourful and artrageously dressed crowd! However I was inspired by several artists work and the 'bucket men' gouaches by Jui-Pin Chang were drawing a steady crowd.  This one caught my eye for obvious reasons....

Jui-Pin Chan's rendition of Australian $100 note, gouache on P-Tex.

Prior to the opening we were invited to eat at the cutest little cafe in Kuala Lumpur, poco homemade.
poco homemade
This Japanese-inspired cafe is owned by Zelin's wife who makes all the delicious cakes, as well as the quirky artwork and bowerbird collections inside.  I felt like I was back in Gertrude Street, Melbourne or in the Lonsdale Street Traders in Canberra. But better food!
Ice's artworks adorn the walls along with eclectic secondhand treasures.
What better way to finish off this week's blog than with the illuminating display of lanterns at Rimbun Dahan to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. The children lead a colourful procession while we sat and ate mooncakes.
Colourful animal lanterns resting beneath the feet of a well-known Australian artist incognito
Happy Mid-Autumn Moon Festival!
Next week I will be travelling to other parts of Malaysia and hoping to find a trace of missing textile designer and entrepreneur Jim Thompson in the Cameron Highlands.

Sehingga minggu depan,

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Halfway Point

I have now reached the half-way point in my residency and I can't believe how quickly time has flown.
The other artists and I have been enjoying each other's company on trips to the local night markets, a lunch at the "big house"with Hijjas, and impromptu artist talks in each of our studios.  Here is a photo I took at the night markets of some quirky beans called  petai  or stink beans.

 Rows of petai (Parkia speciosa)
These stink beans are best combined with other strong flavours such as garlic, chill or belacan.

I was in KL for two days this week to attend a talk at the Muzium Textil Negara by Eddie Yap, a batik and shibori artist and one of the judges for this years Piala Seri Endon batik design competition.

After living the quiet life in rural Jalan Kuang, KL seemed like complete chaos - construction works going on everywhere, traffic, haze, tikus, and the ubiquitous golden arches.  So not like our wonderful warung across the road from us at Rimbun Dahan (see previous posts).
At the Bukit Bintang junction, KL.

Unfortunately Eddie's presentation had to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, so I missed meeting and talking to members of the Sahabat Textile group.  Instead I had another look around the Muzium and photographed this example of batik coloured with the natural dyes from "pearl water, mangrove bark, rambutan skin and mangosteen skin".

I could not find a credit for the maker of this naturally-dyed ensemble.
I also had dinner with two well-known locals who both collect songket (amongst other textiles and objects). Datin Noor Azlina Yunus also happens to be the author of two amazing textile books - 'Songket Revolution' (ISBN 9789834439804) and 'Malaysian Batik: Reinventing a Tradition' (ISBN-10: 080484264), for those who wish to find out more about these Malaysian textiles. 

And of course, when in KL.....the way to relax those tired feet is to get them massaged by fish!
Not for the ticklish!
I was glad to get back to Rimbun Dahan as I have plenty of work to be getting on with. I have just mordanted several metres of plain silk with two different mordants: Symplocos and Potassium Aluminium Sulphate.  Although these are both aluminium mordants, the Symplocos is derived from a plant that grows in Indonesia and is a natural bio-accumulator of aluminium.  I am testing to see whether it provides a stronger colour once dyed in comparison to the PAS. The Symplocos comes in ground form and I boiled it up in rainwater for half an hour before mordanting the fabric in it.
Preparing the Symplocos for mordanting fabric
After boiling for half an hour the Symplocos falls to the bottom of the pot and you can then add your fabric.  In future I will put the Symplocos into a dye-bag like I do with other vegetable matter as it is hard to get the little gritty bits off your fabric even after several rinses. The Symplocos turns the fabrics a shade of yellow, which indicates the fabric is mordanted.  This will disappear once dyed, and does not interact with the colour produced by your dyebath. 

My first samples are dyed with areca nuts, the fruit of the Pinang palm tree, Areca catechu, which grows in Angela's taman sari (vege garden).These are very important in many Asian cultures, as they are chewed with betel leaf and lime. According to Wikipedia the extract also has antidepressant properties in rodents....know wonder our tikus here are so lively!

The nut itself is found inside a fleshy orange/red fruit, and is incredibly hard to crack open.  Here is my dyepot showing the colour coming from the nuts inside the dye-bag.  They look like segments of orange the way I have broken them but they are really very hard.
Areca nuts boiled for an hour in rain water. A white piece of silk to show true colour.
Here are my first samples dyed with Areca nuts, not yet dry.
Although they are still wet, the difference between the two mordants on the same fabric type is not glaringly obvious, so I will post my results and findings next week.

 sehingga minggu depan,

Monday, 9 September 2013

Histories...and mysteries Part 2

If this is "Histories and Mysteries, Part 2" then where is Part 1??? Good question.  Last week I was showing someone my blog and realised that my post of 18th August had completely disappeared.  No, I didn't do anything to it 'by mistake'.  So I googled the problem and apparently it has happened to quite a few bloggers, some even losing their whole blog overnight!  Anyway, I guess it reinforces the good practice of saving the blog elsewhere each time you post. So that post is History - where it has gone to is a Mystery - and we'll leave it at that. Did anyone notice...?

What have I been up to this week then? I have had some good chats with Angela about the plants at Rimbun Dahan and found this pile of books by my door the other day.
6 Volumes (+1 index)  and The Curiosity Cabinet of the Ambonese Herbal
Wow! You can't see how thick each of these volumes are but they run to around 600 pages each, with fabulous illustrations inside.  These have just been published in English last year, and the sub title is "Being a Description of the Most Noteworthy Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, Land -and Water- Plants Which Are Found in Amboina and the Surrounding Islands According to their Shape, Various Names, Cultivation, and Use: Together with Several Insects and Animals." Whew! Not only do I need more hours in the day, but a couple more pairs of eyes to read with.

Angela also invited me to view her collection of songket.  Briefly, a songket is a textile in the brocade family. Handwoven in cotton or silk, (and traditionally using naturally-dyed fibre) it is intricately patterned with gold or silver threads, giving it a shimmering effect, and is therefore a luxury fabric used for ceremony as sarong, shoulder cloths or head ties. Of course it is much more than this description, with many books written on the subject (yes, I have been lent those as well!!).  So enough of my prattle, here is the eye-candy....

One of the beautifully woven textiles (reverse side).
And another one showing both front and back of the songket
   An unusual design, and we found some slight variations throughout the cloth
which emphasises it's hand-made qualities.
An intricate clasp on the edge of this heavily embellished songket.
Hopefully these beautiful textiles will encourage you to find out some more about songket.

On Saturday, Angela showed about 30 architecture students and lecturers from the Politeknik Sultan Idris Shah around Rimbun Dahan.  They spent a few hours walking around the landscaped garden, looking at the traditional and contemporary buildings on site and listening to artist talks.
The group from the PSIS outside my studio after artist talk.
Luckily I have been working hard and had a few things to show them;  talked about my concepts and my design philosophies, and managed to give the Canberra Centenary a plug too!
Almost finished 2 large pieces, some drawings and works on paper, and dye samples.
If you read my last post you will know we have hit a rainy patch here at Rimbun Dahan, and I have found another good thing to do in the rain - collect fresh rainwater for my dyepots! This saves me from having to figure out how hard the water is here, which will affect my Symplocos mordant process - bonus. 
For those of you that are more interested in the fauna and flora I have managed a few photos for you as well. I found this large insect one morning, covered in dust and fluff on my studio floor.  I saved it's life....then by chance I was flipping through one of Angela's books and found out what it was.......

Rhynchophorus ferrugineus  - the Red Palm Weevil - about 4-5cm long
Uh oh!  I was concerned that perhaps I shouldn't have saved it after all.  This striking fellow is a major pest in commercial palm plantations.  Fortunately Rimbun Dahan is not one of those. Who would have thought such a pest could be so beautiful?  

Here is an interesting plant I am sampling for dyes.  It is a Bunga telang  in Malay, or Clitoria ternatea.  The flower is used as colouring for a rice dish, nasi kerabu, and kuih tai bai, a small cake. 

There weren't that many flowers on Angela's vine, but I am sampling the leaves and seed pods in my dyepots.

Well, that's all for this week.  Feel free to ask questions or comment below.
Sehingga minggu depan,

Sunday, 1 September 2013

It's raining cats and dogs (and rats, and bats....)

Well, it's rained twice this week, once for three days and the other for four...sorry! couldn't resist bringing out that old Irish joke.  Yes, the rain has dampened a lot of planned outdoor activities such as collecting new dyestuffs, swimming in our lovely pool and getting out into the garden, but Rimbun Dahan is still beautiful in the rain.

View from my studio across the fish pond
And there is actually nothing better than hearing the rain pouring down, listening to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 to accompany the thunderous drama outside,  and stitching quietly. However, during the brief periods of respite I did manage to snap a few gorgeous things on my camera.

Walking past the pool, I spied this perfect contrast
and one of the many colourful dragonflies that inhabit the gardens
As promised last week, I also have photos of some initial dye tests done with some palm seeds and mangosteen skins on my pre-mordanted sample fabrics.  The different coloured stripes on the long pieces of fabric show the 8 different mordants I have used to see what colours they will give me from one dyepot. A great thing to be getting on with whilst it is raining.

Using Madagasca palm nut windfalls
The small square sample pieces have also been mordanted with Symplocos which was delivered this week. Symplocos is a plant that is a bio-accumulator of aluminium, not a man made chemical, so I will be testing its efficacy against the usual Potassium aluminium sulphate and/or aluminium acetate.  Unfortunately I thought it would be easy to buy a lot of mordants here, hence didn't bring much with me, so maybe have to order some in.
Mangosteen skins
The colour of the mangosteen skin dyebath
The mangosteen skins gave a wonderful dyebath colour that didn't translate onto the fabric itself.  I am not surprised but I also did not have many skins.  I also read that a local artist prepares his mangosteen bath for 12 hours.....I will still not hold my breath (and those of you into natural dyeing will know why) but I am willing to give it another go.  Of course, just getting the colour to take does not mean it will be light or colour fast......I have got a few excursions planned in the next couple of weeks to local dyers and craftspeople...stay tuned. I have also finished stitching the large cloth I was working on last week.

So, what else can you do in the rain? On Thursday night, the Rimbun Dahan resident artists all went to the Taksu Gallery for the opening of "Water" a 4-person exhibition that includes current RD resident Sabri Idrus. I was also quietly celebrating the fact that I have been at Rimbun Dahan for exactly one month. I met a few other Malaysian artists as well as award-winning film maker U-Wei Haji Saari, who will be in Canberra soon with his film 'Hanyut', based on Joseph Conrad's novel, at the Canberra International Film Festival.  Canberrans, take note.

Myself, Sabri Idrus and Filipino artist Carlo Gernale in front of Sabri's work.
And speaking of Galleries, Rimbun Dahan has its own magnificent underground gallery that is designed around a central atrium, lit from an open landscaped turning circle in the driveway in front of the house. Too large to show it all here, but also a very impressive collection of contemporary Asian and Australian art.

The other thing you can still do in the rain is make a dash for it across the road and have lunch! Carlo and I eat a meal together nearly every day at our favourite local Warung outside the front gates. As all the artists work and live in different parts of Rimbun Dahan, it is nice to talk to another person and exchange ideas and information. And what better way to do it than over makan.
Always busy, always delicious. You can even 'Like' them on Facebook!
And on the socialising front,  my Bahasa Melayu teacher in Canberra, cikgu Zahara, put me in contact with a friend of hers from high school, Fatahiya, who lives just up the road.  Her friend's daughter was getting married on Saturday and the women all gathered together to start preparing the food for the kenduri, or wedding feast.  
Fatahiyah is on the far left.  It's BYO knife for this social event.
I got to join in, thank goodness I like paying attention to miniscule things......
Ikan bilis....BEFORE cleaning!
These tiny, tiny ikan bilis are one of my favourite foods, mixed with a hot chilli sauce on top of rice, and more fresh chilli.  But I certainly did not know you could/ or would CLEAN them! It is a bit like peeling prawns - take off the head, slit down the back with your thumbnail, clean out the dark intestinal tract, and put in a pile ready for cooking. Wow, I will never eat so many of them again without thinking about the hours of labour going into cleaning them. Usually, cleaning ikan bilis is not done due to their size and the fact they are already dried and stiff, but this was for a special wedding feast.  There is a Bahasa term for this which I have forgotten, but basically it means 'coming from the heart'.  I am sure someone can remind me of it.

And finally, although Muslim culture does not have the same belief that rain on your wedding day is a good omen, I am sure being married on 31st August is...not only is it Hari Merdeka but it is also during Hari Raya.  Thankfully the Groom and his entourage arrived just before another downpour.
Congratulations to Sakinah and Kairol, and best wishes for your future happiness together.

Kairol and Sakinah
sehingga minggu depan  (until next week)