Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nyonya Needlework

On the Curator's Tour
 The latest exhibition at the Peranakan Museum Singapore is on "Nyonya Needlework".  I had the pleasure of going on a Curator's Tour of the exhibition the other week, and learnt so much about the history of this beautiful craft as well as about the numerous beaded and embroidered exhibits!

The curator was at pains to explain two key points.  First, that "needlework" here was used as a generic term to cover embroidered and beaded items.  Second, that the exhibits may not have been personally made by the nyonyas themselves for their own use or that of their families.  Just like today, they may have been made by seamstresses/ shoemakers, or beadworkers/embroiderers who do this job for a living.  (There was one piece which was apparently worked on by the nyonya herself and the quality, according to the curator, was not so good).  I do tend to agree that the intricacy and scale of some of these pieces may have been beyond the scope of a normal household.

The exhibition is divided into 5 main sections: the first looks at needlework techniques and materials;
Phoenix in flight - detail from bed hanging
the second, on the auspicious symbols and elements which are often incorporated into the needlework pieces; the other three sections covered exhibits from Indonesia, Malacca/Singapore, and Penang.   Our curator showed us one of the oldest known examples of Peranakan embroidery - a simple bed hanging from Indonesia, which had been sent to a Dutch museum.  The date of acquisition, in the mid 1840s, had been recorded by the museum - it was really wonderful to see that even after all these years, the bed hanging was still in such good condition.

My favourite piece was another bed hanging, a very intricate bed hanging for a wedding bed which used a threading technique to thread the beads together.  It was a truly spectacular piece, designed to hang from the top of the bed.  The curator noted that it was likely used only for the wedding itself, given that it was rather heavy and not practical for everyday use.  Again, I marvelled that such a delicate item had survived for so long and in such good condition, that we could continue to admire it even today.

Aside from the intricate threading work (the technique has been lost in the mists of time), I really like the cute little boatmen, the animals (birds, a little dragon, and some other strange creature), and the beautiful, beaded fringe.

Threaded Wedding Bed Hanging

The exhibits also helped illustrate the practices and way of life of the Peranakan community.  Use of European motifs (e.g. light haired children, dogs, cats etc) showed how the community sought to emulate the western way of life, but adapted to suit their own preferences.  It showed how the community thought of itself as still very Chinese, as can be seen in the use of Chinese symbols and motifs as well.  The Penang section, according to the curator, presented the items used in the wedding chamber, such as a lovely embroidered silk tablecloth, wall items and clothing items.

I am just a very amateur beadworker (and I am not too sure that I want to embark upon a second pair of shoes at this point in time).  But somehow, I did feel that sense of connection to nyonyas past who had painstakingly worked on making this beautiful items to delight the eye.

There are many more photos of the exhibition to be seen at my Flickr site:

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