Writer: Rushyan Yen
Apart from her classically featured face, what strikes one about Sharifah Barakbah is her fresh and rosy complexion, and her clear eyes, extremely alert and lively. One gets the impression that she’s quiet and serene. Her manner is courteous, she is obliging, and she is rather smiling and friendly.
Born on July 5, 1948 in Alor Setar, Kedah; Sharifah Maheran Barakbah has always wanted to be an artist and her interest in batik in particular led to experiment on her own with a few batik starter kits. From there, she decided to attend the Institute Technology of Mara for four years and graduated in 1972. She did not stop there and went on to receive her diploma in textile and fashion from London. Although she has also studied printing and weaving she gravitates toward batiks because to her “batik is more free and allows [her] to be creative and versatile.”
Soon after graduation she began to make her own fabrics and designs. When she first started, batiks were still very traditional and not innovative. Sharifah is proud of her ability and vision to come up with new motifs and colours and is constantly changing her products to meet the demands of her customers. From block printed batiks, she has since moved on to hand-painting as a way to distinguish herself from the numerous batik manufacturers in Malaysia. The location of her factory in Gombak was chosen for its proximity to a main highway that drew many tourists on their way to Genting Highland.
From the launch of her business in 1975, she has tried to break away from the traditional bird and butterfly batik designs and block prints common to Malaysia.
They were an instant success and suddenly this young, soft-spoken designer was travelling all over the world with her unique new designs. Soon she made contacts all over Singapore, Europe and the United States.
Sharifah generally paints only on silk. Sometimes she replaces the traditional canting and wax for gutta, a rubbery substance that also resists water. The difference is that it lies more on the surface so the dye bleeds just a little creating a soft feathery look to the edge.
Her most creative designs are created free-hand, without any outlines or resist at all, like painting with water-colour. They are the most difficult to create because once the dye is down, there is no going back. Any mistakes must be adapted and worked into the overall concept.
It is vital to Sharifah that her designs are versatile and meet the taste of a wide range of customers. Her motifs include a rainbow of colours and range from floral and animal to geometric designs. She is especially influenced by Native American Indian designs whose geometric aspect mesh very well with Malaysian designs. The resulting earthy geometric design is her signature style.
When asked, Sharifah laughs and admits that she does have artist block occasionally.
Sometimes she has no ideas, sometimes more than she can handle and doesn’t even know where to start. For inspiration, Sharifah will often look to nature photos, travel magazines, gardening books and environmental publications such as National Geographic.
While many people think that international designs have invaded and damaged traditional Malaysian garments, Sharifah asserts that this fusion of styles is a part of the countries heritage. Malaysia is a country with many different cultures and ethnicities and this style-mixing of different traditional motifs and clothing is a wonderful consequence of it.
Her designs are constantly evolving with the times. These days, her designs are more simple, to suit today’s style and younger generation. Because of her ability to adapt to many tastes, Sharifah’s clients include Malays, Chinese, Southeast Asians and Westerners; encompassing batik lovers from all over the world.
The most frustrating part of her job she asserts is always having to change and come up with new designs. Furthermore, many people copy from her. Sharifah tries not to let it bother her and has learned to just let it go. I “must have my own identity,” she says.
Furthermore, she explains that “there are many competitors with many ideas, you feel overwhelmed.” Sharifah is not afraid of the challenge however and simply must work harder and be more creative. “It’s good to have competition to drive yourself and make you prove what you can do.”
Besides clothing, Sharifah also creates batik paintings which mix modern with traditional. Her favourite subject is flora with a contemporary twist. She was once commissioned to paint 400 wall hangings of flowers, 3 meters long each. Working rigorously, she was able to create 2-6 a day! Thus, this versatile woman is both artist and designer just as a batik piece can be both art and fashion.
Although Sharifah started on her own, Sharifah has turned it into a family business with a staff of 5-7 workers. Her husband helps her with the marketing and her two sons, ages 29 and 30 are being groomed to take over the business in the future. That does not mean however that Sharifah will be releasing the reins any time soon, as she says, “I love this job, I will never retire…I love making batiks”
This team of helpers does not mean that Sharifah is allowed to relax. In the end, most of the work still falls on her shoulders. First, she must come up with idea on paper or maybe straight on cloth and draw it out on a large piece of paper. Her staff then simply trace the design and do brushwork. The result is a product that is created by an artist, not craftsmen.
Although not as much anymore, Sharifah has sold her work internationally and hopes to do more in the future. After travelling all over the world to places such as Japan, China, Australia, the U.K. and America she sees that “Westerners really appreciate art, Malays not as much. They prefer ready-mades” That applies to Asians in general she asserts. The Chinese and Koreans for example were not very excited or impressed about an artist working before their eyes. In Europe and America, Sharifah asserts, “they go crazy over it.”
Plans for the future focus more on mass-production because as in her words, “after many years of experience, this is the only way to expand a batik business. To move away from being exclusive. Not giving it up altogether, but to do both.”