What is Pua Kumbu?
Literally translated to mean ‘blanket covering’, pua kumbu textiles are made through a complex and intricate process spanning many months, using tie-dye resist methods. The cloth is used for sacred ceremonies and rituals by the Iban people of Sarawak.
I got to drop by University Malaya’s Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition. Combining classic anthropology research with innovative media, the exhibition is an interactive and immersive journey for visitors to better understand this ancient form of art, and the way of the Iban.
It took two years under the University’s High Impact Research project to put everything together, but I have to say the result is awesome. The team had to go to the longhouses in the Sarawakian jungles, to better understand pua kumbu, its origins and the heritage of the people who make them.
You see, pua kumbu isn’t just some pretty cloth….
We begin our exhibition journey with a classic documentary explaining the origins of the Iban, and an introduction to their history and culture. The live footage was mostly gathered from the uni team’s visits and were not taken from anywhere else.
Then we come to the actual pua kumbu.
The Iban believe in a spirit world that exists alongside their mortal realm, and the pua kumbu is a reflection of that connection.The weavers, who are all Iban women, weave their dreams and observations onto the cloth – so you are looking at actual stories in each piece, even though it might not make sense to people who do not know its history. The really old pieces are deemed to have immense power, while those featuring certain animals or figures can only be woven by expert weavers lest the pua does harm because of its potency.
Weavers are revered as poets, chemists and historians. I was told that the sacred puas come from dreams and are very powerful. Today, as the women are more involved in craftmaking, some pua pieces have become commercialised and involve simple designs such as snails and patterns that hold no sacred meaning.
Visitors can download and scan a QR code instead of reading static descriptions. All you have to do is wave your phone or tablet over the code for the info. How innovative! I only expect this sort of tech in museums overseas, so this was very encouraging. The mistake with Malaysian museums and exhibitions is that they tend to be super static and boring, or if research is done it is presented to a niche audience through talks and conferences. This is the way to go if they want to attract public interest.
The cloth is either cotton or silk, and is dyed with a variety of plants found in the jungle or cultivated by the Iban in their compounds. For example, yellow dye comes from ‘akar penawar landak’ (fibraurea tinctoria) while indigo is sourced from rengat (marsdenia tinctoria).
A dream is considered sacred because the Ibans think of them as messages. When a weaver has a dream and intends to weave it into a pua, they cannot reveal the dream until the cloth is complete. The one on above is called ‘Rebor Api‘ and came from a dream of the weaver’s longhouse on fire. But before she could complete the weaving, the dream came true. Interesting.
A piece called Ijau Pumpong.
Away from the entrance is a small room with a TV set playing a video clip of Bangie Anak Embol, the master weaver of the Iban community in Rumah Garie in Kapit. She is in her 70s and revered as an expert in pua weaving and an excellent craftsmaster, recognised by our Malaysian government.
Bangie explains the stories in Iban on several pua pieces, coupled with beautiful flash animation done by UM’s digital team.
There were many fascinating stories behind the different pua – it’s almost like a storybook in cloth form.
One of the more interesting ones was called “Keling and Kumang”. They are very important mythical figures in Iban culture. Keling is a strong, brave and handsome warrior, while Kumang is his beautiful and gentle wife. The dream came to Bangie almost 15 years ago but she only weaved it much later when the time was right.
Kumang is bathing at the well when she was spirited away by a spirit called Bunsu Ribut. Awaiting for her in vain, Keling decided to search for his wife by climbing up a tall tree. On the way, he meets many animals such as monkeys, pheasants, hornbills, fish and dogs who help him in his journey. They finally find Kumang on a middle branch and she is rescued, and the couple live happily ever after.
It is even more fascinating to know the story because you can see the figures represented in the cloth.
They use sliding Ipads on both sides of the Keling and Kumang piece, with character sketches and explanations popping up as you slide along the display. Really cool.
Another piece by Bangie, called Pun Nibung Berayah. This came to her in a dream where she was lost in a nipah forest – hence the thorny patterns on the pua.
Character concepts by the digital team, which were eventually translated into beautiful flash animation. I really liked their animation because it captured the essence of the Iban through simple tribal designs and elements.
The story of how Pua came to be. It was said that the first pua was a bird belonging to a goddess, and an Iban warrior shot it down; whereby said bird turned into an exquisite piece of cloth. The goddess took the warrior up to heaven where they had a child, but he returned to earth later and with him came the knowledge of pua making.
‘Tangga Beji”; literally Beji’s ladder. If any of my readers are Iban, correct me if I’m wrong because I can’t remember the exact story now and the only internet searches are in Bahasa Iban.
Beji had a brother who climbed up a very high place and ascended to where the Gods live. He stayed there for a long time. His younger brother Beji wanted to look for him, so he built a tall ladder using tree trunks to try to reach the heavens. Unfortunately it broke, and Beji fell back to the ground. He gave up on his quest, and since then the people and their Gods became distant, only communicating through dreams.
Red is a common colour for pua kumbu pieces.
The one on the bottom left has an interesting history. It is one out of only four pieces still known to exist. ‘Rang Jugah’, or ‘skull basket’, was presented by the wife to a husband for his first successful head hunt (the Iban were fierce warriors and head hunters). Of course, this piece cannot be reproduced today.
Motifs like serpents and crocodiles couldn’t be woven by just anyone, because the Iban believe that while they exist in the real world, they are also spirits in the spirit world and are very potent. If you’re a newbie you can’t simply weave these things coz it might harm you.
The exhibition also features 80 selected photographs from over 2,000 photos they took during their research. You can view some of them here. It chronicles the production process from collecting the yarn, dyeing, soaking, weaving as well as rituals for the making of pua kumbu.
There are about 30+ pieces of pua, with the oldest being more than 200 years old. Some are newer and others are heirlooms passed down through the generations. The UM project involved 32 weavers.
Natural dyes using cultivated plants and jungle produce. There’s a video showing the process – they are usually mashed to a pulp and then boiled in high heat before the yarn is soaked in it for the colour to stick.
Replica of a traditional longhouse. Ibans live in longhouses (the name itself is explanatory) where entire communities live under one roof. There are smaller rooms and a long communal area where they gather, eat and have festivals.
Burung Ruai or pheasant bird. See the tail in the design at the bottom and top? :)
Souvenirs such as clothing, bead necklaces, shoes and scarves for sale at the foyer.
The weaver women are earning a good income from the commercialised pua, thanks to researchers who are also helping them gain more exposure. The pua are often very well sought after because of their beauty and quality. A big piece can cost up to RM10,000. But at the same time, the weavers are still holding steadfast to their more sacred beliefs, lest the meaning is loss in commercialisation. It’s a balance between livelihood and ancient traditions.
I enjoyed myself so much at this exhibition I spent nearly three hours there, even though the floor space isn’t very big. It was definitely a very insightful look into the Malaysian Iban culture. As someone living on the Western Peninsula, I’m ashamed to say I have never gone to East Malaysia (it’s a 2 hour plane ride)… :x This has really intrigued me to explore more of my homeland and to experience its culture to the fullest.