“The things I like most about Batik are its natural beauty and bright colours and the fact that each piece is unique. The lines it makes give each piece a unique artistic value,” said artist Samar Hassanein describing her work in reviving the art of Batik.
Hassanein took part with her latest collection in last month’s Turathna (Our Heritage) Fair in Cairo. Taking part in such fairs makes more people aware of this form of art, she says.
She has been working for years to revive the art of Batik in Egypt through her brand Egyptian Batik Art. In her designs, mostly on dresses, jumpsuits, blouses, jackets, and kimonos, she uses bright colours with floral motifs and geometric patterns as well as Arabic calligraphy.
Hassanein first came across Batik during her studies at the Faculty of Art in Cairo. But these did not include how to produce colour-fast products, a requirement for Batik on fabrics, especially clothes and sheets that need to be repeatedly washed.
After graduation, she worked briefly in porcelain and then in making artistic candles before moving into Batik in 2008 and finding ways to produce colour-fast material. Her decision was prompted by her wish to revive Batik in Egypt and produce clothes influenced by the Egyptian heritage.
Her first major Batik work was making curtains for the house of famous artist Sami Amin, who praised her work and encouraged her to continue.
“Batik disappeared in Egypt a long time ago. In reviving it, I wanted to make textiles using Batik techniques. Curtain and furnishings were an alternative to painting for me, and of course Batik also reflects Egyptian identity,” Hassanein said.
Over the following five years, Hassanein researched the best techniques to serve her aims. She used to work at home, but a few years ago she moved to her present workshop in Fustat in Old Cairo.
“All my designs are derived from Egyptian heritage, for example from pharaonic art, the ancient Egyptian heritage, Sinai patterns, Nubian art, Islamic art, or Arabic calligraphy. It is one way of preserving our identity and one of my main targets in working with Batik,” she said.
Batik is a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth. The wax resists the dyes and therefore allows the artist to colour the piece selectively by soaking the cloth in one or more colours. After the colours dry, the wax is removed with boiling water. The process is repeated if multiple colours are desired.
Visiting Hassanein in her rooftop workshop decorated with artistic porcelain pieces, herbal plants, and Batik fabrics hanging on lines to dry, I was able to meet one of her dedicated apprentices who demonstrated the process of creating Batik patterned fabrics for a dress and a blouse.
Her first warning was not to come too near to the dying process because it could stain my clothes. “Our colours cannot be washed off,” she said.
Hassanein devotes part of her day to choosing new designs, making stencil templates for popular designs, and cutting dyed fabrics to be sewed. She spends the rest of the time in her workshop.
She works on Rayon and viscose and uses artificial dyes that are environmentally friendly. Natural colours cannot give the bright, long-lasting colours that are needed to produce bright Batik art that will not fade with repeated washing. She displays her work in her gallery in the Fustat Market.
Batik is becoming more and more popular worldwide, and it is not only used for making fabrics for clothes, but also includes furnishing fabrics, curtains, heavy wall hangings, tablecloths, and household accessories.
The oldest Batiks made in Egypt date back to the fifth century BCE. However, it is said that the art of Batik was developed to the highest standards in Indonesia, where the secrets of its techniques were passed from generation to generation or kept within families of artisans.
The word Batik is also of Javanese origin and means to write or to dot. The word is first recorded in English in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1880, in which it is spelled battik.
The history of Batik is firmly linked to China because that is where the technique began to spread around the world through trade. It later moved to Europe, and in 1835, the first Batik factory was opened in the Dutch city of Leiden. The Europeans improved the technology and started mass production using stamps to print on the fabric, significantly reducing the cost of production.
Hassanein dreams of keeping all kinds of Egyptian handicrafts alive. She is looking forward to teaching Batik to interested artists and coming up with a unique quality that can outsell foreign-made Batik.
Handicrafts are also becoming more and more appealing to a wider section of the population, with people in general becoming more appreciative and understanding of the value of handcrafted pieces, she said.
“Fairs like Turathna and social media have facilitated the spread of the different Egyptian crafts and encouraged more and more people to market their products,” she concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly