Rebecca Duckett Breathes Colours Into That Plain White T-Shirt

There was a time when plain white t-shirts were my choice of attire. I shied away from displays of conspicuous messages across the chest; why would I want anyone to ‘read’ me! Once, printed t-shirts were mundane reprints of typical local scenes or swatches of batik or songket. These were just too commercialised and heavily catered to the tourist market. For me the advent of Owen Rebecca Designs changed the locally produced t-shirt market. Her images had chosen to include us in the interpretation of Malaysia’s tropical wildlife and vegetation. Indeed this was a bold move as stylised adaptations of such sceneries were barely in existence in the 1980s. Thanks to these stylised adaptations of local sceneries and Malaysia’s natural landscapes, we no longer take these views for granted. Those t-shirts were fun and worn with great pride! We were inducted into the realm of Rebecca Duckett’s dreamscapes.

A woman donning a plain white t-shirt in a field of long grass.
The plain white t-shirt can usually take you from casual to smart casual if worn with a smart jacket. With just that little dash of colour, a tastefully designed motif on the white t-shirt will give you the edge on individuality too.
Photo by Kane Taylor on Unsplash

Owen Rebecca Designs: Perfect To A Tee

In the mid 1980s, Rebecca returned to Malaysia as a trained weaver and textile print designer. She earned her degree from Parsons New York. Then, her dilemma was no different from other fresh graduates. Where do we go from here? With a modest loan from her father she decided to print her designs on t-shirts. A joint venture with husband-to-be David Wilkinson saw the launch of Owen Rebecca Designs at Kuala Lumpur‘s Central Market.

Rebecca Duckett's colourful imagery of nature.
Rebecca’s whimsical adaptation of creatures and vegetation – dragonflies, pitcher plants and ferns in a Malaysia’s tropical forest.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

Decades have passed since the production of these Owen Rebecca Designs printed t-shirts. Yet we have discovered that still, after all these years, this was the very thing that people remember her by.

“Oh THAT Rebecca Duckett!’ they would say.

Rebecca and David on Banda Island. Rebecca is wearing one of the Owen Rebecca Designs t-shirt.
On the left is Rebecca, sporting one of her t-shirts. Here she is with husband David Wilkinson on Banda Island, Indonesia. Their regular sea voyages to the islands east of Indonesia traces the famed Spice Trade.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

She responded with a chuckle and gamely reacted, “That’s great! It’s what started it all. We started at the most happening place at that time. Central Market was buzzing with artistic fervour and home to many young talents. David and I opted for a base there as we wanted to feel that pulse.”

Rebecca's playful joget scene.
Rebecca’s interpretation of three ladies performing the joget, a traditional Malay dance.
Seen here wearing sarongs and kebaya tops. In the background are durian and banana trees, a typically tropical backdrop of Malaysia kampungs.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

And oh those t-shirts! I’m amazed at how people remember them. Even more so that some others have kept theirs through the years. It’s been decades! Until now I do receive e-mails enquiring if I have any up for sale. That’s really lovely.

Rebecca Duckett
A typical Owen Rebecca Designs of leaves in contrasting hues.
The Anthurium sp and Alocasia sp are typical tropical favourites that have inspired Owen Rebecca Designs.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

Renewing Ties With Rebecca

I had only recently caught up with Rebecca at a book launch. From a sea of faces, a familiar smiling face from long ago clearly stood out. There she was, the tall and unmistakable lightly tanned Eurasian and her distinct oriental features. Instantly recognisable, engagingly bohemian, exuding a sense of bonhomie. It struck me then how Rebecca is always smiling!

On the left, Azlina Ali with Malaysian artist Rebecca Duckett.
On the left is Azlina, with Rebecca on the right. We met at a launch of a cookery book, ‘To Nourish With Love‘. Rebecca was commissioned for a series of detailed and colourful illustrations for this book.
!mage by Author
'To Nourish With Love' is an Indian cookbook that traces Manju Saigal's journey from her birthplace Mussoorie, India to Malaysia.
‘To Nourish With Love’ is written by Manju Saigal and Bettina Chua Abdullah. It is a comprehensive gastronomical journey from Mussoorie, India, Manju’s birthplace to Malaysia, where she now resides.
Image by Author
Rebecca's illustration in the book 'To Nourish With Love'
One of Rebecca’s illustrations in the book ‘To Nourish With Love’. This is a detailed expression of the foliage in Mussoorie, India as the ladies harvest the fruits and spices in preparation for their feast.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

Rebecca’s Philosophy

Life post-Owen Rebecca Designs has been fulfilling! Her three children, Edward, Arthur and Tessa are all grown-up and pursuing their interests in different parts of the world! Each one of them fiercely independent; but family ties are strikingly strong with holidays together and celebrations of family milestones.

Rebecca continues to encapsulate the essence of her passion for botany and natural history. She shares these interpretations at exhibitions and art fairs in Malaysia, South Korea, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. As she is aways seeking opportunities to expand her horizon, she finds herself constantly assessing her work, ensuring their evolution with current trends. The priority is to maintain her personal values, without compromise!

Always do the hard work, over and over. Practise. The practice of your craft hones your skill. Become an expert and don’t compromise on quality. Make sure what you do inspires the passion within you. In this day and age the hardest thing is to not let anyone diminish the vision in your head. Focus.

Rebecca Duckett
An imaginatively stirring piece by Rebecca Duckett at her solo exhibition, Forbidden Fruit, Women, Sex and Botany.
Hot Flush is one of Rebecca’s exhibits at her solo exhibition in 2019 – Forbidden Fruit, Women, Sex & Botany. This was at Art Space 1, China House in Penang,
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

To date, I am most proud of this exhibition. It draws a parallel between the treatment of women, the history of plants, the environment; the connections between Women, Sex & Botany. 

Rebecca Duckett

“My Inspirational Parents”

Rebecca Duckett grew up in Malaysian plantations, surrounded by the lush tropical greens of the country. It was an incomparable childhood and one she would not have traded for the world. Her father had unwittingly trained her to appreciate her surroundings with a keen sense of observation and exploration. She has continuously developed this skill. These documentaries have become second nature to her, eloquently transcribed into words and drawings. Romancing nature has become integral in her life as she renders witty expressions of her life and loves.

“A Malaysian plantation childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. My mother made our clothes, curry lunches and the best trifle ever. My planter father wrote diaries, loved natural history. My inspirational parents.”

Rebecca Duckett
Geok Bee Duckett - Rebecca's mother.
Rebecca’s mother, Geok Bee Duckett in the garden of their estate home in the plantation, circa 1960s.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

She is a super talented homemaker! Detailed needlework and excellent cook!

Rebecca Duckett
Toddler Rebecca carried by her father, John Edward Duckett.
Toddler Rebecca carried by her father, John Edward Duckett, on the oil palm plantation in Johor, Malaysia circa 1960s.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

Oh, Dad was an amazing storyteller and he kept my three brothers and I enthralled with his tales. He came to Malaya with the British Army back in 1954. He gave up his commission three years later, choosing a life in the plantation that befitted his interest. My parents first met in Segamat, where Mum was working the family business at a supply shop. To cut a long story short, they married and here we are!

Rebecca Duckett

Rebecca is currently working on a book based on her father’s diaries. She aims to cast a book that will draw a parallel with her own childhood and experiences in the plantation.

In their estate home in the plantation, the Duckett children, Jonathan, Neil, Rebecca and Richard on their bicycles.
The Duckett children enjoyed a carefree childhood at the plantation, riding the vast expanse of land on their faithful bicycles.
From left to right: Jonathan, Neil, Rebecca and Richard.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Duckett

A Proud Malaysian

Rebecca’s mixed parentage led me to a simple query, “How Malaysian are you?”

Now that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?
I’m totally totally Malaysian, although I’m fully aware I may not sound like one!
But that’s what you get if you were to judge a book by its cover. Though, I will admit that it does tickle me to see some people caught off-guard when I speak in Malay!

Rebecca Duckett
Rebecca Duckett in her element - a brush, paints and a potato to print.
Rebecca shows us the fundamentals of printing with the humble potato!
Image courtesy of Joanna Line, a participant at Rebecca’s Artistic Retreat

My childhood is in Malaysia. The plantation was all I knew for a time and I loved it.
And my art is Malaysia! I have always been inspired by what I have been exposed to all my life. Without doubt we are a nation abundant in her beauty in nature, people and certainly heritage. Indeed, I am blessed to have grown up amongst a wealth of experiences.
David too, is all Malaysian; he was born in this country. By virtue of his ancestry, I would say that he is more of a British thoroughbred! His parents are British, and they too had come to Malaysia and lived in the plantations.
My three children are Malaysians. This is our home.

Rebecca Duckett

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the next episode, come get to know Rebecca as we discover how her ventures and experiences have shaped her artistic course over the past few years. When the COVID-19 pandemic descended, Rebecca was in Piedmont, Italy. Discover how the involuntary separation had impacted her. Then, allow me to take you on a little journey to the Artistic Retreat on Pangkor Island as I share my novice experience in art. And as for those Owen Rebecca Designs t-shirts, let me discreetly let on that something is in the offing!

About Azlina ALI

Veteran journalist, wife, mother, with an ever burning passion to write and tell stories. Then throw in a dose of healthy diet and an active lifestyle, Azlina is a force to be reckoned with. She's a lean, mean storytelling machine.

2 Replies to “Rebecca Duckett Breathes Colours Into That Plain White T-Shirt”

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