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Spirit of Wood exhibition and lecturesat the Brunei Gallery, Soas, London,January 2004Waveney JenkinsPublished online: 22 Jan 2007.
To cite this article: Waveney Jenkins (2005) Spirit of Wood exhibition and lectures at theBrunei Gallery, Soas, London, January 2004, Indonesia and the Malay World, 33:96, 93-96, DOI:10.1080/13639810500281765
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SPIRIT OF WOOD EXHIBITION AND LECTURESAT THE BRUNEI GALLERY, SOAS, LONDON,JANUARY 2004
Some of the articles in this issue commemorate the life and ideas of a singular man, the late
Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein. By trade a woodcarver from the northeastern tip of Malaysia,
he managed to revitalise the art of Malay woodcarving in this area.
Nik Rashiddins work came to fruition last year when between January and March 2004
his eclectic collection of carved wooden objects from the northeastern seaboard of the
Malay peninsula drew many thousands of visitors to the Brunei Gallery in London.
These artefacts had not been amassed as art objects, but were the results of many years
research by Nik Rashiddin and Norhaiza Noordin, two of Malaysias most renowned
Born in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, in 1955, though descended from a family of goldsmiths
from Patani, Nik Din carved from early childhood onwards. On leaving school he was sent
to Java to study at the famed Jepara carving school before being apprenticed to the well-
known carver in Kelantan, Che Long. Technically accomplished, he was not satisfied with
what passed for knowledge about his craft, and he began to search for information. Both by
talking with all the old craftsmen of the area, and by travelling widely around neighbour-
ing countries, he built up theories and concepts that established much about the origins and
derivation, and the history and philosophy of the motifs and patterns found within the
designs of his art. He also collected widely, only buying objects that carried some import-
ant message. He called these artefacts his text books and spent almost every cent he
earned on purchasing important items.
Though he created carvings for many prestigious projects, such as the great doors
leading to the Istana Balai Besar (the throne room of the sultans of Kelantan), as he
grew older he became dissatisfied with doing commercial woodcarving, and moved to a
remote village by the sea in the south of the state. Here, with the support of his wife,
Rosnawati Othman, herself a graduate architect deeply interested in motif, he concentrated
on carving superb examples of hilts and scabbards for keris, as well as continuing his
research, and teaching. One young carver, Norhaiza Noordin, who came to him for know-
ledge became his closest associate. Together they decided it was vital to bring this know-
ledge to a wider public and the decision to publish a book and set up an exhibition was
taken. A small exhibition was initially held in August 2000 in the headquarters of the Heri-
tage of Malaysia Trust in Kuala Lumpur. The response was immediate; the most common
comment We didnt know this part of our heritage existed.
Nik Rashiddin was convinced that the area that comprised Patani, Kelantan and Tereng-
ganu had been forged over more than one millennia of civilisation and culture and that this
culture originated in what has been named the Langkasukan kingdom. First mentioned in
Chinese annals of the 2nd century AD, this kingdom had its heart at the narrowest point of
ISSN 1363-9811 print=ISSN 1469-8382 online=05=960093-4 # 2005 Editors, Indonesia and the Malay WorldDOI: 10.1080=13639810500281765
Indonesia and the Malay World, Vol. 33, No. 96, July 2005
the Malay peninsula which many traders and religious leaders from Hindu, Buddhist and
Arab countries would have traversed. The motifs and forms found in the carvings of the
area bear many specific references to this history.
Tragically, in August 2002 Nik Din died before his project was fully realised; just a year
before the launching of the book, Spirit of Wood, and the opening of a much enlarged,superbly designed exhibition which was held at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singa-
pore, as its first major temporary exhibition at Empress Place. Under the auspices of the
British Malaysian Society the exhibition then travelled on to London to the Brunei
Gallery of SOAS.
Within the exhibition the journey through the history of this area was traced by looking
at the forms and motifs within a large variety of objects: from simple household goods,
through carved house panels and fishermens toolboxes to superb royal regalia and car-
vings from mosques. But central to them all was a collection of keris that explained the
development of these extraordinary artefacts: so very much more than mere weapons to
the Malay people.
In May 2005 Spirit of Wood (Kayu dan Semangat) opened at Muzium Negara in
Kuala Lumpur, where the prizewinning exhibits of the first national woodcarving compe-
tition to be held in 30 years were displayed. In late June 2005 a seminar organised jointly
with the International Islamic University of Malaysia was held at the Muzium to deliberate
on the antecedents and development of Malay designs and motifs. A revitalisation of
Malay woodcarving is one of the oldest traditional Malay arts. In the absence of any
written or architectural records or remains of the early history of this area, the story
held within carvings provides a key to unlock the mysteries of the past. Motifs and
designs on tombstones, seals, keris and other weapons, textiles and illuminated manu-
scripts such as finely-decorated copies of the Quran, can all be analysed to reveal evidence
of layers of cultural influences, as can household objects in metal, stone, wood and palm,
as well as architectural constructs. Such artefacts can bear witness to the chronology of
successive waves of foreign contact, the impact of inter-ocean trade networks, and the
adoption and adaptation of new religious and aesthetic ideas. To date, little research has
been done to ensure that the genius and creativity developed during the heyday of
Malay artistry does not evaporate in the heat of modern civilisation.
The late Nik Rashiddin, and now Norhaiza Noordin, hope that this knowledge can not
only be safely perpetuated, but form the springboard for others to reach into the past, and
discover the beauties and wisdom that are at present still buried in the unknown. This
desire is finding a solution with the setting up of Kandis Resource Centre in Nik Rashiddins
village where Rosnawati Othman, and Nik Dins brother, Nik Rashidee, are constructing a
centre to hold the carvings, the library and drawings of Nik Din to be available for all
students, scholars and craftsmen to study.
Some of the articles in this issue arose from the lectures presented in connection with the
London showing of the exhibition, by some of those inspired by Nik Din.
The first of these lectures was presented by the authors of the book, Spirit of Wood,
Dr Farish A. Noor and Eddin Khoo. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Eddin Khoo was
prevented from coming to London to present his paper, and a very old friend of Nik
Rashiddin stepped into the breach at extremely short notice. Luciano Federico was
Spirit of wood: the art of Malay woodcarving by Farish A. Noor and Eddin Khoo (Singapore: Periplus Editions,2003).
94 Waveney Jenkins
Figure 1. Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein. Photo: David Lok.
Spirit of Wood Exhibition 95
indeed the man who had initially inspired Nik Din to look more deeply into the history of
woodcarving motifs more than 30 years ago. Luciano was then beginning his career as a
noted collector of keris, and also Japanese antiquities, and has since evolved his own very
definite theories on the meaning embodied in the forms of the various keris. Puan Rosnawati
Othman, widow of Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein, herself a noted scholar of architectural
designs, focused on what Nik Rashiddin meant by the Langkasukan motif. Puan Rosna-
wati is carrying on her late husbands work and worked with Muzium Negara in Malaysia
to present the exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in May 2005.
A second evening comprised lectures by Dr Annabel Teh Gallop of the British Library,
Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Horniman Museum and Dr Othman Yatim from Muzium Seni
Asia. Dr Gallops research into the motifs of the illuminated Islamic manuscripts of the
Malay world is well known, but she was able to draw some extremely interesting compari-
sons between the illuminations produced on the northeast coast of the Malay peninsula and
motifs in the woodcarvings. More importantly, she found that the standard of work in these
illuminations is of an exceptionally high standard, surpassing similar manuscripts from the
rest of the Malay world. Dr Kerlogue brought her extensive knowledge of textile motifs, in
particular those of the Malay region of Jambi into the debate, and finally Dr Othman Yatim
gave an overview of the history of woodcarving in the Malay peninsula. We hope that
these articles will provide much to encourage interest and further research into this subject.
Finally I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all at the School of Oriental and African
Studies, and to colleagues of this journal for supporting our venture so wholeheartedly.
Datin Waveney Jenkins
Curator and Chairman of Kandis Resource Centre
96 Waveney Jenkins