Refashioning Heritage

Artiste and drama teacher Oniatta Effendi turned her passion for batik into a clothing business that pays homage to the traditions, stories and artisans behind these timeless textiles.

In a shophouse across from the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampung Glam, homegrown label Baju by Oniatta has found a new home. Or, as founder Oniatta Effendi prefers to see it, the batik has come home. “That was the pull for me,” she says, pointing to the neighbourhood’s rich history, which was shaped by the Bugis, Javanese and Arab communities. The alleys around Arab Street, in particular, were where the trade in batik began.

Today, mass-produced, digitally printed batik abounds amid souvenirs in the hip neighbourhood. However, at Galeri Tokokita, which relocated from Joo Chiat and opened its doors on North Bridge Road in mid-December [2020], only exquisitely handmade batik can be found. It is the definitive showcase for Baju by Oniatta, which in just over four years has grown from a leap of faith to a series of pop-ups to a brand celebrated under the government’s Made With Passion initiative.

A teacher and applied drama practitioner for over 21 years, Oniatta now wants to educate people about the artisanal value of this wearable art. “Batik is an experience. You need to meet the cloth,” she says. A tactile encounter with batik, now ranked an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Indonesia by UNESCO, will evoke tales of the past and an appreciation of the landmark emblems of the archipelago’s culture, she believes.

For Oniatta, whose grandparents hail from Java, batik speaks of inheritance and of a tradition that has threaded its way through generations, even after they’ve planted root in metropolises like Singapore. In an age of fast fashion, she recognised a need to honour the labour of love behind batik, which uses wax and dye to create motifs on fabrics. Visits to batik villages and workshops in Solo and Jogjakarta opened her eyes to the sheer amount of work, craftsmanship and time that go into each ream, where patterns are meticulously hand-drawn with a pen (batik tulis) or hand stamped with a copper stamp (batik cap).

In between her classes and performances, the energetic mother of five dreamt up her first designs. She launched the label in October 2016 with 12 pairs of Utama pants, wide-legged batik cap pants with a flap in front that makes it look like a sarong. “They sold out in seven days,” she recalls. The Utama pants have since gone through several iterations and are both a signature and bestseller for Baju by Oniatta.

The next year, she rolled out a small batch of batik tulis, not knowing if there would be demand. However, the one-of-a-kind pieces resonated well with customers. Buoyed, she went on to release a new collection each year, with Biru: An Ode to Bunda in 2018, comprising 48 pieces in indigo, each named after a strong woman who was a mother. The collection, which remains close to her heart, sold out within a month.

Nostalgia followed the next year with 60 pieces in an array of brown and black dyes. “I have a strange relationship with brown batik. It is often worn at funerals so reminds me of death,” she says. But she discovered that it ignited a pride in the past for customers, who include Malaysian writer and activist Marina Mahathir.

Last year, amid Covid-19, she released Kasih+Sayang. The collection explored love through 10 Javanese motifs, including the parang, a forbidden knife motif reserved for royalty or war. “The parang is a symbol of courage, power, strength,” she notes. She linked love with the parang because, as she points out, people do go to war for love for country or the people they want to protect. Interestingly, pieces with the parang design left the racks the fastest.

Her latest collection, unveiled in March, is Lingkaran. Inspired by the shape of a circle, it features both batik tulis and batik cap on cotton and silk (a first for the label). Some pieces of the collection, her largest to date, also contain lines of poetry in Bahasa Indonesia.

Despite sustained success, her plan is to keep Baju by Oniatta as a small batch label that honours the origin and traditional ecosystem of batik. “Every purchase supports the people who are doing craft,” she says. The craft is under threat in Indonesia as younger people are opting for jobs that pay better, like driving for Gojek.

While there is fast fashion too in batik, with cheap prints easily available online, the batik she sources employs no synthetics. Only natural fibres such as cotton and silk and natural dyes are used. The challenge is sharing that knowledge with prospective buyers and getting them to embrace what sets it apart from our fast-evolving, throwaway culture today. “At the very front are the people, their practices, traditions, language. I want people to appreciate batik as art,” says Oniatta.