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These contemporary Malaysian ceramic makers have turned their craft into both art and commerce.
“I started making ceramics in my mum’s backyard, an open kitchen. I had a small work area out there and that’s where I started, where I experimented with ceramic.”
Ten years on, Rozana Musa runs Bendang Studio, a workshop and retail showroom housed in Alor Gajah, Melaka. It’s funded by grants from Kraftangan Malaysia and the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development (KKLW), which also named Bendang Studio as the winner of its Rural Business Challenge 2014.
Rozana works hard to ensure that Bendang’s products are handmade from scratch throughout – from making the colour glaze using natural ingredients to hand-painting the designs.
“The name Bendang is a tribute to the bucolic fields that surrounded the river around my grandmother’s house,” says Rozana. “The clay mixture we use are mixed in with clay from the river itself. I have a special connection with this place [in Alor Gajah].”
All these influences are reflected in Rozana’s ceramic ware at Bendang, which are humble yet charming. With clean, rustic designs, it’s no surprise that social media, Instagram in particular, has been Bendang’s most important marketing platform.
“Bendang’s business is almost exclusively on Instagram. That’s where most of the orders come from. Right now, the business is focused on homeware and tableware,” says Rozana.
“I have five staff here in this new space and production is full until next June. I would like to increase production, but handmade ceramics is laborious and time-consuming.”
Kuala Lumpur’s burgeoning café scene has undoubtedly elevated Bendang and the ceramic industry in Malaysia. You’ll find Bendang tableware used in some of the Klang Valley’s best-looking cafés including Rimba & Rusa, Chocha Food Store and Jibby & Co.
For those looking to get your hands on Bendang’s homeware products without having to make the trip to Alor Gajah, Kedai Bikin in Bangsar stocks a selection of Bendang products, but be warned that items often sell out fast.
While Bendang is considered a veteran ceramic maker in this niche local industry, a new wave of appreciation for modern and contemporary ceramic ware has lead to more individuals taking up the craft.
In the case of Lee Ee Vee, she decided to start her own ceramics business.
“I think I started making ceramics because it was too expensive to bring all these imported ceramic products to Malaysia due to high import duties,” says Lee, who first took up ceramic-making in 2015.
“It simply started off as an interest. Six months into it, I was confident and decided to set a goal and challenge myself, so I started selling some of my creations at local art markets.”
Lee, who co-founded homegrown ice cream brand The Last Polka, now single-handedly runs Thirty3Eleven. The products feature an aesthetic sense of nordic rawness and European minimalism.
Even with a successful homemade ice cream brand to her name, Lee reveals starting up Thirty3Eleven has definitely been the hardest endeavour she’s ever taken on.
“Honestly, I thought it was easy, I thought I could hack it in six months. Call it the ‘millennial trap’, we want everything instantly, we want to be successful and scale up as fast as possible. And here I am, two years on, trying to make a plate that’s flopping without any rational reason.”
But Lee has found her footing in the craft, accepting the well-worn truth that ceramic-making is a lifelong learning experience, as even the most skilled craftspeople are still learning new methods and techniques.
“When the pieces turn out as planned, that’s where I find the joy in this, it reflects who I am as an artist,” she says.
“There are so many variables with ceramic. For example, the firing [heating] – every kiln works differently. There’s so much trial and error. Moreover, the industry is extremely small locally and there’s no-one or no resources to turn to to troubleshoot. It’s really all about experimenting endlessly.”
In the short time that Thirty3Eleven has been around, Lee is grateful for the support and response she’s received for her products.
“Almost everything I produce are items I would want in my home. I love this intimate connection between me and my products, the artist and the creation.”
Both Bendang Studio and Thirty3Eleven’s products are stocked at Kedai Bikin.
Text and photos by Chris Lim
Assisted by Eunice Tan and Naomi Khor
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