Sarawak Crafts: Methods, Materials, and Motifs.

New Straits Times, 7 January 2001: “Useful and beautiful.”

Heidi Munan: Sarawak Crafts: Methods, Materials, and Motifs. Images of Asia Series, Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 92. RM55.00

Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer

Anang beguai nanam padi
Enti babas enda’ di-tebas dulu;
Anang beguai-guai deka’ bebini,
Enti apin nemu ngaga ulu duku.

“Don’t hurry to plant rice if the jungle hasn’t already been cleared; don’t rush off to take a wife if you don’t yet know how to make a knife-handle.”

So runs an Iban pantun. The plethora of mass-produced stuff has obscured the most important fact about crafts: in the really old days, if anybody anywhere needed a necessary something, they had to make it themselves, or get someone to make it for them. Everybody was expected to have some skill.

This is still true among the peoples of Sarawak, and hardly because the products are merely ornamental and saleable and the process merely amusing and lucrative. Traditional designs have been tried and proved true over thousands of years. The Shaker Ann Lee’s rule—“Every force evolves a form”—holds true in Borneo also. It is precisely because craft-objects are so useful that they are so beautiful.

Heidi Munan has made Sarawak her home for 35 years and during that time she has travelled through every corner of the state and collected an immense amount of knowledge on Sarawakian life and lore. She holds the position of Curator of Beads, upon which she has learnedly written, at the Sarawak Museum. Her husband’s people (for she married here) are superb craftspeople, especially in the area of bemban mats. To her erudition Munan unites an eye for form and workmanship, taste, and a gift for explaining her subject in an engaging and diverting manner.
Munan’s little book is an excellent introduction to the broad world of Sarawak crafts. Broadly defined, “crafts” could cover nearly every aspect of Borneo country existence, from building boats and longhouses to weaving. Munan concentrates on objects in which the aesthetic urge is marked: carving, metalwork, plaiting and basketry, beadwork, and weaving. Thus, Sarawak Crafts is especially useful for the visitor who wishes to collect things of quality or to understand what they see.

The distinction between “useful” and “beautiful” (more modern than you would think) does not occur in Sarawak handiwork. Nearly every object that is used is decorated, and everything that is decorated is used, such as bamboo containers with their tendril designs scratched into them.

In the Sarawak context, the word “useful” itself takes on more meanings; it may mean magical use. The grotesque carved human figures in front of longhouses are meant to frighten demons and welcome the householders; Melanau blum, or “sickness images,” represented the spirit of disease, which was then dismissed and floated down the river. The Iban carve elaborate wooden hornbills for their Gawai kenyalang to ask the god represented by it for help in war, while their tuntun sticks attract wild pigs.

Nietzsche said that in old buildings what we see as “beauty” was intended to convey meaning. Munan knows that this still applies to Sarawak today. Artists do not chose motifs at random, but according to significance. Images have power. A sword-sheath should bear a pattern of leeches, to symbolize the drawing of blood, and an Orang Ulu family will carve their bilek door or adorn with beads a baby-carrier with designs belonging to their rank in society.
Iban ikat fabric is of such ritual importance that weaving was called kayau indu’ “the women’s warpath.” The selection of patterns for a pua kumbu was hedged around with taboos; a great weaver might be visited with inspiration in a dream.

Even the curling scrolls and leaf-shapes, the staple motifs of design throughout Sarawak, which today one finds on almost everything—including t-shirts—ultimately go back to the ancient Tree of Life, a spiritual picture of the world burgeoning with creatures.

The tourist trade has created many opportunities for Sarawak craftspeople to continue carving, forging, weaving, and plaiting. Munan also makes the important point that craft-skills survive in modern Sarawak life because people prefer to use their own productions in their daily chores.

It would be hard to count the variety of carrying-baskets adapted to specialized uses: one is good for durians, another for rice. The selabit basket can be stuffed with more stuff than the fanciest nylon backpack. Mats too appear in manifold variety. You can dry padi, pepper, or cocoa on some, sit or sleep on others. No plastic sheet matches them in stiffness and lightness, no linoleum in comfort, no carpet in ease of keeping clean. Forging of parangs for use on the farm is a roaring cottage-industry. For the exact right tool, container, or floor-covering, nothing but the traditionally made will do.

Oxford’s Images of Asia series books filled a desired niche when they first began to appear 12 years ago with their slim, handsomely illustrated volumes in which experts gave us solid basics of some field of Asian arts and life. Unfortunately, some of the books went out of print almost as soon as they hit the shelves. I missed my one chance to buy Sailing Craft of Indonesia and never saw it again. Reissues are welcome.

One fault—not Munan’s—with Sarawak Crafts is that 12 years have gone by, yet OUP did not see fit to allow the author to expand her bibliography to include such excellent new books as Jean-François Blehuat’s Iban Baskets, Traude Gavin’s The Women’s Warpath, or Augustine Anggat’s Iban Design. Let’s hope that OUP will be more generous in further re-issues.

Whoever reads Sarawak Crafts will surely want to know more, and I hope Munan’s entertaining guide—she is quite a craftswoman herself in being able to pack so much detail neatly and intelligibly into so little space—will draw him or her time and again back to the bookstore, or better yet, the kampong.


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