By SGN | 8 May 2023
Oniatta’s foray into fashion happened rather by accident.
After returning from a Java trip with yet more batik to add to her collection, she sent some to be tailored into a garment she had envisioned – a pair of trousers with a front panel giving the illusion of a skirt or sarung.
“I started wearing the pants, and friends asked if more could be made for them,” she recalls. Then an arts educator, she produced 12 additional pairs, which sold out within two weeks. The overwhelming response led her to launch a fashion line – Baju by Oniatta – as a side hustle in 2016, and she began promoting her designs at pop-up events around town.
Through the brand, Oniatta pursues an approach encapsulated by her very first design: combining traditional craftsmanship with modern wearability.
A shared treasure of the region
Oniatta’s earliest memories are of growing up in a kampung house in Kaki Bukit, Singapore. Her grandmother, who ran a business embroidering kebayas and prayer garments, always wore a sarung of batik cloth. This she would never lay a needle on or take scissors to, since altering batik would to her be like desecrating a precious work of art.
Richly embedded with meaning and poetry, batik is used to mark the milestones of life, from swaddling a newborn to cloaking the dearly departed. It has never left Oniatta’s side through countless special occasions, be it graduation, marriage, or the yearly festivities of Hari Raya Puasa.
Like Oniatta’s family, batik traces its origins to Java, Indonesia. Over centuries, the craft has evolved beyond the contours of the island, spreading across Nusantara (the Southeast Asian archipelago) to ethnic groups such as the Malays and the Peranakans. By a curious colonial turn of events, it even gave rise to the ankara fabrics of Africa.
“I see batik as a culture that belongs not to any isolated geopolitical space. I see it as a wealth that the region shares,” Oniatta says. Indeed, the textile has become such an integral element of regional culture that its motifs appear on the uniforms of the national airlines of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In traditional batik, these motifs are created using wax – delivered by copper pens in batik tulis or copper stamps in batik cap – to demarcate areas of the cloth that remain untouched by pigment during dyeing. Producing batik is a laborious process that can take months, depending on the design’s intricacy and how many colours are required, which determines how many cycles the wax has to be applied and removed.
For a purist like Oniatta, printed versions that bypass the use of wax cannot be considered batik; they are more like photocopies of the real deal. The colours of batik show up on both sides of the cloth, whereas a print has only one presentable face. “You can also tell the difference by feeling or smelling the cloth,” she adds.
New ways to wear and love batik
In Singapore’s melting pot of cultures, all sorts of batik coexist: classical Javanese motifs such as parang (simulating ocean waves) and kawung (inspired by the palm fruit), typically rendered in hues of brown; vibrant, floral Malay designs on silk; Peranakan fabrics influenced by Chinese and European folklore; along with interpretations offered by contemporary designers like Oniatta.
Over the past decade or so, local brands such as Baju by Oniatta, Kiah’s Gallery, Gypsied and YeoMama Batik have sprouted up to honour the roots of batik, while offering fresh ways to celebrate the craft. “I’d like to retain a reverence for the tradition of batik, but also make it accessible to the modern wearer,” Oniatta says.
Oniatta’s designs look to honour the roots of batik while making it accessible to the modern wearer.
For each collection, Oniatta researches age-old batik motifs based on a specific theme and works closely with artisans in Java (mostly around Yogyakarta, Solo, Cirebon) to produce her designs.
Her latest, Fertil, features motifs that symbolise fertility, abundance, growth and continuity – such as fruits, flowers and rain. The collection is a toast to life: to the fullness of familial love, to fruitful collaborations with batik artisans, to the blessed growth of the business.
“We’re only seven years old, but how we have grown,” Oniatta muses. The brand has come a long way, from debuting at a pop-up in a Bedok sepak takraw hall, to now having customers flying in from London and Abu Dhabi.
More than a space for retail
In 2019, after dedicating two decades of her life to theatre and arts education, Oniatta decided to go fulltime into her batik business. She found a home for her brand in Joo Chiat and named it Galeri Tokokita – ‘toko kita’ means ‘our shop’, expressing a shared ownership with makers and wearers of batik, while ‘galeri’ signifies a space for appreciating and discussing the artform, and not just retail transactions.
The following year, the boutique moved to a shophouse in Kampung Gelam. It was a full-circle moment for Oniatta, setting up shop in Singapore’s Malay and Arab enclave, where batik was first sold, and where heritage merchants like Toko Aljunied and Basharahil Bros still stand.
Even during the pop-up days, Oniatta sought to deepen public understanding of batik, programming talks and performances to contextualise its cultural value. Today, Galeri Tokokita continues to host conversations with designers and speakers from across the region to share their knowledge and illuminate the beauty of the craft.
Although some artisans are fearful of being unable to find next-generation successors, Oniatta is encouraged by the growing desire among youth to reconnect with their heritage. On a more personal note, she’s glad that her five children are proud to don batik whenever she coordinates their outfits for special occasions. They’re even savvy enough to discern the genuine article, as one memorable encounter illustrates.
Oniatta’s family was browsing in the store of an international retailer when they came upon batik-inspired printed shirts. “My daughter comes up to me and whispers, ‘Mummy, are you going to report them?’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’”
Her daughter replied, outraged, “This is fake batik.”
Oniatta’s family decked out in batik for Hari Raya Puasa over the years.
Oniatta is the founder of fashion label Baju by Oniatta and shophouse boutique Galeri Tokokita, which celebrate the art of handcrafted batik. A number of her works have been acquired by the Asian Civilisations Museum. Formerly a TV host, stage actor and arts educator, she has taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts and worked with vulnerable communities such as ex-offenders and youth with special needs.