by Michael Backman
The recyclable nature of brass means that relatively few Malay brassware items have survived. They tend to be utilitarian in nature, modest in their
ornamentation and conforming to Islamic traditions. Hospitality is extremely important to the Malay way of life, and with the overlay of Islam which also places
great emphasis on welcoming friends and strangers alike, many brassware items are designed for entertaining guests.
Each of the Malay brassware items in the Gallery were made using the cire perdue (lost wax) brass casting technique. A wax model was made of the item to be
cast. Strips of wax were added to the model for the decorative pattern. Clay was then applied to the model. After drying, the cast is heated. The wax melts and
escapes. Molten brass is then poured into the mould to replace the ‘lost wax’. The brass is then allowed to cool, the mould is broken away and the brass article
is then finished with filing and polishing.
The Islamic Minangkabau people of West Sumatra were renowned for such brassware and typically it is ascribed to them. However, significant examples
appear in Malaysia either due to trade of such brassware across the Malacca Straits or because such brassware was also produced on the Malaysian
peninsular most probably by the émigrés Minangkabau community which centred on what is now Negri Sembilan state, south of Kuala Lumpur.
Many Malay brass items relate to water usage. Water was the everyday drink of Southeast Asians rather than tea, coffee or arak. Typically water was drawn
from freshwater streams and allowed to settle in large containers before being consumed. This process was thought to cleanse it and certainly allowed
suspended sediment to settle. Hence the development of decorative containers to hold water during the settling process such as the examples seen in the
Gallery. Seldom was the water boiled before drinking unlike in Europe or India.
It is also likely that water was drunk straight from the containers and so they were constructed with narrow necks and spouts. Spouts were also useful for
promoting water flow, and by Islamic tradition, flowing water was considered both clean and cleansing compared with still water. Hence, the ewer rather than
the water bowl of India is found among Islamic communities around the world.
Tobacco boxes and betel containers appear in oblong forms, forms which follow 16th and 17th century Dutch tobacco boxes. Round forms appear too, which
emulate English pocket watch cases. The oblong form is most commonly found in Sumatra which was colonised by the Dutch. This design drifted to Malaysia,
via extensive trade and migration links. The boxes were made from brass and from silver.
Malay silver was not made for sale but made on commission. Often the commissioner would supply the silver. Accordingly, no system of hallmarks to attest to
an item’s silver content was devised; it was not needed.
Malay brassware and other metalwork displays a combination of naturalism and abstraction. Islamic tradition forbids the use of figurative design so patterns on
Malay brassware tend to be stylised and geometric, or with foliage and flowers. Items are engraved and repoussed with mixtures of Persian, Arabic, Chinese
and local motifs all the while generally keeping within strictures demanded by Islamic tradition. The palmette motif often appears; it is of Persian origin. Prunus
or plum blossoms are of Chinese origin as is the key-fret motif. And stylised bamboo shoot, pineapple, clove head and water vine motifs are uniquely Malay in
origin. There are regional variations. The brassware of peninsular Malaysia tends to be relatively plain. That of Sumatra is more decorated. And that of the
Borneo states of Brunei, Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan is the most embellished.
Many artisans were attached to the many Islamic courts of the region. Genealogy was important among the Malay aristocrats but not simply for their own
bloodlines, but for their ancestral heirlooms, known as pusaka. Possession of these legitimised their rule and their provenance to earlier rulers legitimised the
objects. The ancestral heirlooms such as krises, betel paraphernalia and crowns need not have been fabulous or costly. Their magnificence derived from
their provenance rather than from their intrinsic splendour. Some objects were splendid however but that was not sufficient for them to be accorded pusaka
Brunei was an important centre for brass making. Brass casters and workers lived in their own village (kampung) and other craftsmen such as kris makers and
goldsmiths lived in their own kampungs. Brunei brassware tends to have Malay-Islamic designs mixed with stylised Chinese motifs such as the key-fret border.
Blank spaces serve to emphasise the patterned areas to provide a whole that is both proportional and balanced.
Malay craftsmen seldom made exact copies of items. Each vessel tended to have a unique design; related items tend to be similar but rarely are they the
same. Partly this is due to the lost wax process which usually means a new mould must be created for each piece. And so while it is possible to find items of
Malay brassware that are similar, rarely are they the same.
Bennett, J., et al, Crescent Moon: Islamic Art & Civilisation in Southeast Asia, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005.
Reid, A., Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume One: The Lands below the Winds, Silkworm Books, 1988.
Singh, B., Malay Brassware, National Museum of Singapore, 1985
© Michael Backman