1. Just as Malaysia was hurtling into existence when the territories of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore willed its formation on 16 September 1963, Patrick Ng Kah Onn, a member of the Wednesday Art Group in Kuala Lumpur, began experimenting with a new series of batik paintings. Batik had just been declared a unique Malayan contribution to modern art in the previous decade. The medium was seen as offering a technical innovation consonant with the initiation of a new national imaginary as Malaya achieved independence in 1957, one in which a traditional craft could be transformed into a modern form and channel new pictorial possibilities. Art historian Zakaria Ali later wrote, ‘We can argue that the identity of modern Malaysian art is in batik by proposing that we have used the sarung for hundreds of years, as noted in an early 15th century Chinese text.’ He also wrote of the medium’s affective potency, highlighting batik’s sentimental trigger, ‘Batik delivers something oils can never do: with batik we feel, smell, evoke, touch our homeland.
2. It is seldom acknowledged that the attempts to historicise batik as quintessentially Malayan and Malaysian, such as the claim above, are largely great works of fiction. Recent scholarship has begun to uncover the economies and discourses of the institutionally conceived modernity of Malaysia and the ways in which batik is imbricated within a nationalist art discourse.In this context, batik has been metaphorically described as a sartorial skin that wraps and encircles the nation. As an article of clothing it scripts the subject as cultural identity, connecting to the body politics of the nation. In the transformative use of batik from sartorial textile to painting support we see a deployment of form that brings to mind Charles Baudelaire’s linking of modernity as ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ to fashion.This dimension suggests the fleeting characteristic of intimacy and is worth historicising, all the more so because batik painting continues to be discussed within the broader registers of cultural tradition and change.
3. Fabric can be understood as a second skin. It wraps, clothes, shields and embraces the body and in doing so, it not only scripts the body but its envelopment is a type of sensual configuration. The tactility of fabric is alluring and intimate. Writing about intimacy as a social matrix in which discourses of autonomy, social conformity and liberal values intersect, Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s research brings to attention the central role intimacy can play in structuring social relations. She argues how this matrix is a space in which the social subjects acquire coherence and thereby become a legitimate object of inquiry for biopolitical discourses that vacillate between freedom and conformism as these discourses regulate bodily desires. This, I contend, extends to the sartorial.
4. In batik paintings that emerged in Malaysia from 1955 onwards, we see intimacy and batik are transformed as tropes through pictorial fabrication. The registers of body and cloth become fluid categories through which to express desire. However, Patrick Ng’s foray took it a step further. Here ‘queering’ was centred on a discourse of plasticity that brought into discussion questions of what types of bodies can make claims on sensuality via figurative representation.
5. The framework of queering conspires towards the possibility of a narrative outside the cultural expressions that accompanied struggles for politicisation of sexuality in parts of Europe and North America from 1970s onwards. This possibility allows us to explore an alternative history of modern art, outside European and American contexts. The desire for such narrative is beguiling. It signals the possibility of rethinking the location of desire within the story of modern art in Asia—a questioning of the commonplace trope of the body and its figuring of nationhood within hetero- normative discourse. This trope has been so central to many post-colonial readings, in which the allegorical female body stood for the nation in artworks by male artists and signified what Geeta Kapur described as, ‘a relay of male desire, female vocation, and national culture, posed for unabashed viewing outside the margins of history but potentially inside a national pictorial scheme’.
6. Thus when we encounter what appears to be a different pictorial reservoir, we are invited to think of a ‘queer before gay’ moment in Southeast Asia, to borrow Douglas Crimp’s phrase. By this I understand Crimp to suggest that over and beyond the cultural production that attended to and followed from the gay and lesbian liberation movement, one could perhaps think of other ways of articulating and negotiating with desire that operated outside of and very often before this 1970s political trajectory. Instead Povinelli’s concept of intimacy as a social matrix creates room for speculative inquiry in which the anecdotal and tentative map out possible sentiment rather than certainty. Often enough, the anecdotal forms a significant corpus of material and a methodological tradition for the study of art history.