Although not of Peranakan descent, Sherin Ng Lay Hwa was so interested in its culture that she felt frustrated when she was living in Ipoh. Unable to express her love for its culture and heritage as there were no outlets to express them, without friends who shared the same passion to the point of feeling different in a way, for Sherin, life felt unexcited and dull.
That was, until she set up her own boutique, Karyawarna Batik & Craft, a shop that dealt in batik-based craft and apparel that allowed her the freedom to express herself fully. Karyawarna means “colourful works of art” in Indonesian.
Recalled Sherin, “It was my mother’s idea that I pursue this business. She knew that I was differently inclined, loved creativity and had a passion for batik. All I ever talked about was batik since I was a teenager!
“I had spent years working first as an interior designer and then in the hospitality industry but was never truly happy. In retrospect, I had the best time of my life the four years that I ran Karyawarna. There was once I even organised a fashion show to showcase my batik collection designs and even took to the catwalk myself.”
She continued, “Through my business, I had the opportunity to traverse to acclaimed batik workshops in Kelantan, Terengganu and even Bali in Indonesia, and observed batik masters at work and picked up their techniques. My discerning clients were very happy that I could offer them some of the best artworks.”
Now 47 years old, Sherin spent her early childhood in Taiping, Penang and Ipoh. Her grandmother, the late Madam Tan Siew Kim, who kept a treasure trove of her best baju Nyonya and manik (bead) shoes under lock and key, adopted a Peranakan lifestyle, which greatly influenced Sherin as she was growing up.
Sherin shared, “I didn’t know how to appreciate her beautiful clothes and shoes. It was only as I grew older that I fell in love with them and would wait for my grandmother to unlock her cabinet to have a sneak peek inside. My grandmother’s collection of batik sarongs, sheer embroidered lace Nyonya blouses, beaded shoes and jewellery were very precious to her, and now I can understand why.”
It was only after moving to Kuala Lumpur after her marriage that she began developing the artistic side of herself. She explained, “Uprooting to KL, once again, I felt lost. Luckily, my husband, who understood about my passion for batik and painting encouraged and supported me to go into it full-time.
“He believes that happiness comes from doing the things that one loves and wanted me to achieve that side of happiness. He even prepared an art room for me so that I could paint in a comfortable home environment. This gave me the motivation and boldness to take this wonderful journey of my dream. Words could hardly express the joy I feel waking up every morning, doing what I do now. Through art, I have once again found myself in Kuala Lumpur.”
Sherin may have started painting at the late age of 43 but this self-taught artist, whose favourite mediums are watercolour and acrylic, has built not only a sizeable collection of painting but also a reputation within the Peranakan art circle over the last four years.
One of the key people who helped build her foundation and artistic direction was Baba Peter Wee, President of the Peranakan Association Singapore, who was very generous with his advice. At his invitation, Sherin showcased some of her Peranakan-influenced artwork at the Kuala Lumpur International Batik in 2011. The reception she received there was very encouraging, and ignited her passion further.
Sherin added, “In August this year, I had the opportunity to take my art home to Ipoh for my first solo exhibition, which I named ‘A Nyonya Affair’. It was a dream come true for me!
“I hope that my painting had invoked a sense of curiosity among the younger generation to find out more about the Peranakan heritage and culture, and to have a better appreciation for it.”
The 32 pieces of art, painted over 3.5 years through a journey of self-discovery, showed an experiment of style that blended Peranakan patterns with batik motifs on canvas. Sherin found it appropriate to use wax to give her work a deeper meaning, using it as a distinctive medium to accentuate and identify with the rich heritage of the Peranakan culture.
Sherin summed up, “Our past is our life and it is that which makes us who we are today.”
Note: An edited version of this article [A Nyonya Affair] was published on 1st December, 2014 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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