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If you thought that a talk on plaiting and basketry may be a bit dry? You were wrong and totally so. Heidi Munan was talking and it was a one woman’s show: educational, beautiful (the artefacts and Heidi wearing traditional hats) as well as entertaining, which in my opinion all lectures ought to be.
I attended the session at the Sarawak Museum so that I could easily gather information on Sarawak baskets. A few weeks ago I had asked for permission to take pictures (no flash!) of exhibits on the 1st floor of the Tunku Abdul Rahman wing. When I heard that Heidi was going to brief museum officers, I jumped on the opportunity to listen and learn from her extensive knowledge.
Heidi explained that, not so long ago, which she places some 100 years back, there was no such thing as furniture in Sarawakian homes. Her comment immediately sent me back 30 years in time, when houses in Kuching did not hide behind thick high fences and when window curtains were luxurious fancy deco. It was easy,to drive around at night and peep into people’s living room in the light of neon tubes.. As I remember it, furniture was very scarce, a dining table perhaps, a TV cabinet certainly, and a 20th century “MUST” have: the living room unit consisting or a 3 sitter and a 2 sitter benches that came with 2 armchairs, all fitted with Dunlop cushions. Watching TV however, was done sitting on the floor, on a locally made mat (often an heirloom), either to save the Dunlop cushion covers with the printed blooms in their centre, or simply out of a cultural habit.
This was in the 1980s, in Kuching town and at the time, it seemed very strange to me that people should show so little interest in their home comfort. Little did I know then that the concept of comfort I had grown up with did not even exist in old Europe until the eighteenth century. According to Bill Bryson (I love to refer to his book “At Home”) the word “comfortable” then meant “capable of being consoled”. “Comfort” meant “Capable of being consoled”; it was something you gave to the wounded or distressed.
In Borneo, baskets were used for absolutely everything: very small ones were for beetle nuts and flint; bigger ones to store rice and just about any personal belonging and others were for carrying paddy back from the “farm” with some even taller than the man who carried them!
There were no mules and no wheels here in those days and if they could not use a longboat, people would carry everything inside home-made baskets.
As Heidi reminded us, there were “specialised” baskets too, like those to carry enemies’ heads back to the longhouse. Those were the days!
Baskets and mats, indigenous to Sarawak are still commonly used; they are made with botanical fibres like rattan, bamboo, screw pine (pandanus), arrowroot, or even breadfruit (takalong). Until recently, baskets, mats or hats were not for trade, only for use.
Heidi explained that men have always been the ones to collect the materials needed for plaiting; it is a tough job, especially with rattan. Once the materials have been brought to the longhouse, the women take care of calibrating” leaves and strips before plaiting them into practical objects, baskets, of course, but also mats to sit or sleep on and hats too that protect form the sun or the rain.
Hats used to serve as a mark of identification, telling which ethnic group and what status one belonged to. Heidi who owns an impressive collection of Borneo hats gave us a splendid show and certainly confused everyone present as to her ethnic origins!
And times they are changing…
Plastic strips, recycled newspaper; new ideas, new trends and new collectors too. Arrowroot (bemban) sleeping mats, for instance, are fast becoming a dying art; while the new generation of Dayaks in not willing to continue the age old tradition of making the prized mats, connoisseurs are collecting them as precious artefacts.
Heidi Munan is Hon.Curator at the Sarawak Museum and Director of Craft Hub
She has written several books on Sarawak’s culture and arts. For this post in particular refer to SARAWAK CRAFTS, Heidi MUNAN, Oxford University Press KL 1989
She is considered an expert in Sarawak Beads. Read BEADS OF BORNEO