Iban weaving a reply and rejoinder.
In publishing this letter, it seemed to me only fair to ask Michael and Traude to respond briefly, not only to the letter, but to the more general debate between them that forms the backdrop to this letter. Both consented and I am pleased to be able to include their replies. These appear immediately after Professor Barnes' letter.
In responding, I asked Michael and Traude to keep their rejoinders as brief as possible. This is because a much fuller airing of their debate has already begun and is scheduled to continue in the pages of the ASEASUK News [the Newsletter of the Association of South-East Asian Studies in the United Kingdom]. Here, I urge interested readers to consult Dr. Gavin's "Communication" (with a "Foreword" by Professor V.T. King), which appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of ASEASUK News (No.58: 25-35) and also Dr. Heppell's rejoinder which, at the time I write, has not yet appeared, but is reportedly scheduled to be published in the forthcoming issue.
A bit of background
In her letter, Professor Barnes takes exception to a recent publication of the Borneo Research Council: Michael Heppell's monograph, The Seductive Warp Thread: An Evolutionary History of Ibanic Weaving (2014). In particular, she finds unacceptable Dr. Heppell's assertion, contained in an appendix at the end of the book, that the dissertation research of Dr. Traude Gavin, was inadequately supervised with the result that her writing on Iban textiles based on this research is deeply flawed.
Professor Barnes addresses her letter to me, in my capacity as Editor of the Borneo Research Bulletin, which, she notes, quite rightly, is the journal of the Borneo Research Council.
In order to avoid misunderstanding, I think some clarification is in order. First, the Bulletin and the various monographs published by the BRC are, in editorial terms, wholly independent operations. I was in no way involved in the assessment and publication of Dr. Heppell's monograph. Similarly, the editors of the monograph series in which it appeared are not in anyway involved in decisions about what articles we accept for publication in the BRB. Such decisions are made by your Editor and our peer reviewers. More fundamentally, of course, the opinions expressed in all of these publications are those of the individual authors involved and are not, nor should they be regarded as, the collective opinion of Council or its members. This holds true, of course, for both the monographs and the BRB.
A bit of history, too, is, perhaps, helpful. In recent years, the Borneo Research Council has greatly expanded its role as a publisher and Michael Heppell's book is in part a reflection of this expansion. The Borneo Research Bulletin was the first of the Council's publications. Starting as a biennial newsletter in 1969, the Bulletin gradually evolved into the Council's annual journal. The Bulletin was followed in 1991 by a Monograph Series, later by a Proceedings Series and Occasional Papers, and later still by a Reference Series. A Material Culture Series represents the most recent addition and Michael Heppell's volume, The Seductive Warp Thread, is the first monograph that appeared in this series (see "Announcements," BRB 45:328).
Beginning with the original Monograph Series, a decision was made that the Bulletin would not review any of the Council's own "in-house" publications. This was meant to avoid any possible appearance of partiality. Instead, over the last twenty-five years, the Council has sent out copies of its publications for independent review in other journals.
Your Editor has known both Traude and Michael for a number of years. Both have contributed essays to the BRB and have acted on occasion as anonymous peer reviewers. When The Seductive Warp Thread first appeared, both contacted me with questions about a possible review of the book, or even of a special section of the BRB devoted to a discussion of the book's principal argument. In light of the BRC's policy noted here, I have had to decline all of these suggestions. Doing so, I would like to stress, is in no way a reflection of the work of either of these scholars. I regret that we cannot provide a forum for a discussion of Dr. Heppell's book, but am pleased that ASEASUK News is doing so.
Yale University Art Gallery
Department of Indo-Pacific Art
8 November 2015
Dear Professor Sather,
Our departmental library recently acquired a copy of Michael Heppell's The Seductive Warp Thread: An Evolutionary History of Ibanic Weaving (2014), published by the Borneo Research Council. As the Borneo Research Bulletin is the Council's journal, I am addressing this letter to you as its editor.
There are several aspects of the book's arguments that I could take issue with. Heppell's claim that there is a link between weaving, reproductive fitness, and sexual selection certainly would need genetic evidence to become convincing. His account of the history of Iban and Ibanic migrations and settlements often makes no clear distinction between historical evidence and oral history. His discussion of the evolution of weaving among Ibanic people does not demonstrate a good knowledge of the history of weaving and loom technology in South-East Asia. However, these criticisms are not my reason for writing.
Heppell dedicates an entire appendix to a critique of Traude Gavin's work. Titled 'The Dismembering of Memory', it is in fact an auxiliary chapter to expand on his critical assessment of Gavin's writing, as found throughout the book's main chapters. I do not intend to get drawn into the issues raised here, although it is not a good example of scholarly criticism, as the tone of writing is acerbic and frequently offensive. I do need to protest, though, regarding Heppell's concluding remarks, where he says
At issue for anthropology is that works like these [Gavin's] are not sufficiently critically examined at the stage when they are submitted for examination and assessment with the result that they are given a stamp of approval through publication and an attack on cultural memory is greatly abetted.
This statement claims that Gavin's academic supervisors, examiners, and peer reviewers were negligent in their responsibilities. Traude Gavin was supervised by Professor Victor T. King, and Professor Rodney Needham read her doctoral chapters as an external advisor. Dr. Lewis Hill and 1 served as examiners of the completed thesis. Roy Hamilton of UCLA's Fowler Museum invited Gavin to participate in an acclaimed exhibition of Iban textiles, and to write the catalogue for it. The manuscript of her Ph.D. thesis was eventually published by the KITLV's renowned Verhandelingen series (2003). To accuse all of these scholars and institutions of being insufficiently critical in their assessment is slandering their reputation and academic integrity.
I hope to see this letter published in the Bulletin.
Yours sincerely, Ruth Barnes, D.Phil.
Reply--Dr. Michael Heppell
The issue for anthropology that leads to Ruth Barnes's concern is how the field data presented by an anthropologist can be validated. Margaret Mead became an icon partly on the back of a very popular book based on tales by three adolescent girls whom she failed to probe sufficiently. Her work was exposed by another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, who later worked on the same island. Such misrepresentations are a systemic issue for anthropology. The issue is perhaps enhanced now when pushing students through degrees and publishing is important for academic success. Academics are often too busy to devote time to reading a colleague's material.
Barnes claims that I have accused a number of academics including herself of being negligent in their association with Traude Gavin's work. I don't know how concepts like negligence and conflicts of interest apply in anthropology but I would imagine that they are quite different from their application in the legal environment. I have examined a number of theses about groups of which I had no experience. In such circumstances you rely on another examiner who has experience of the group concerned for comment on the data. The idea that any of the people Barnes mentions, none of whom has done fieldwork with the Iban let alone got into the intricacies of their weaving traditions, would be able to relate what Gavin reports to what the Iban say about their weaving, is clearly absurd.
In the case of Iban publications, one thing that might be done is to refer drafts to people who have worked with the Iban. We have a very good example of the feedback that might occur from Gavin's recent review of the Seductive Warp Thread (Communication, ASEASUK News, 58, 26-35, 2015). Four Iban specialists each read drafts of either Iban Art or the Seductive Warp Thread or both and, for better or worse, missed all the points raised by Gavin and, indeed, by Wadley. In writing this, I am not accusing them of negligence.
Victor King, with tongue in cheek I imagine, explains this debate as a contest to assume Derek Freeman's mantle of Iban oracle. He must be chuckling to himself knowing full well that a visitor to the Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies will find his name prominently mentioned as a contributor and no mention of mine. I can name at least a dozen people who have done fieldwork with the Iban among whom is Vin Sutlive, whose contribution to Iban studies, heroically abetted by his wife Joanne, in its own way, at least matches Freeman's contribution. No one is likely to achieve omniscience in this regard. Indeed no Iban has achieved it. That is why the Iban had specialists (the tuai bulu isa) in a great number of areas who in sum, were the keepers of an immense memory bank of cultural matters Iban. My record in this field is that I returned to commerce immediately after I completed my thesis. My last commercial work was in 2012. I have had no special access to anything of Freeman's. He has enabled anyone to access his own field notes by making them available in the Tun Jugah Foundation which is where I have done my reading and in the National Library of Australia. I'm not sure what King is referring to when he writes about access to and control over knowledge, but Freeman's notes are not under lock and key. Instead, one of the matters which is at issue in the current debate is how the Iban gain admission to the Western coterie which has decided to adjudicate on what the Iban are permitted to say about their textiles, but more about that later.
At issue is the accuracy of data and interpretations to ensure that they conform with what the Iban say about their textiles. For example, in the context of accuracy, take the following statement: "... Hose was posted for most of his time as a civil servant in Sarawak in the Saribas area where sungkit cloths most probably were never made." (Gavin, Traude and Ruth Barnes, Iban Prestige Textiles and the Trade in Indian Cloth: Inspiration and Perception, Textile History, 30 (I), 81-97, 1999, p.87). The sentence is written by the Western authority on Iban textiles and is backed up by one of the most preeminent experts on Southeast Asian textiles and, indeed, on textiles much further afield. Consequently, the observations have gravitas. For an Iban like Vernon Kedit and for myself, the observations are difficult to refute because of the standing of the persons making them. It is written and therefore serves as a source for other persons to repeat as fact. What general reader would know that Hose in fact never served any of his time in Betong, the Saribas center? Most of his time was in Miri, which might explain something about the quality, elsewhere of concern to Gavin (Borneo Textile Colleciton in the UK, Oxford Asian Textile Group Newsletter, 28, 4-8, 2004, p. 5) of cloths he passed on to the British Museum and the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Similarly, what general reader would make the connection of the absence of sungkit cloths in the Saribas and Gavin's later discussion and photograph of a Saribas pua 'belantan which had "a banded pattern at both ends usually worked in sungkit" (Iban Ritual Textiles, KITLV Press, Leiden, 2003, pp.38-40)? A consequence is that anyone reading the co-authored article would conclude that the Saribas weaving inventory of cloths and its weavers did not include sungkit cloths, which is like removing Turner and Constable from British art history.
There appears to be little an Iban can do about such matters, despite the fact that the Rimbas, for example, appears to have a conspicuously distinctive style in the old mansau sungkits. Vernon Kedit, for example, responded that Gavin was misinformed and had made this claim "despite the fact that she knew that Saribas weavers wove the sungkit pua' belantan (Schefold, Reimar, Eyes of the Ancestors, Yale University Press, 2013, p.313). In this book, Kedit challenged much more of Gavin's work. Kedit earlier had written a BRB article on one of his family's cloths in which he disagreed with Gavin's proposition that athropomorphic figures in Iban textiles had no meaning (Restoring Panggau Libau: A Reassessment of Engkeramba ' in Saribas Ritual Textiles, BRB, 40, 221-248, 2009).
Gavin's introduction of Kedit into her review of the Seductive Warp Thread was more than a little contrived. I was the sole author. Gavin used this review as a vehicle to dismiss Kedit as untrustworthy on the basis of his describing a Ngemah cloth and which he stated was common in all river systems including the Saribas (2013:157). Unfortunately, Gavin had not seen the design before. She concluded that Kedit had "provided detailed improvised interpretations of Baleh patterns from a museum collection for which WE have little or no field information (emphases mine--ASEASUK:32). One wonders how a scientist might respond to an accusation of "detailed improvisations" of his or her published data. Presumably with a member of a minority ethnic group, such serious accusations are permissible. It seems that Kedit is being accused of invention in everything he wrote in his BRB article as well as other writings and his master weaver ancestors of make-believe as Gavin insists at the end of her review that Kedit had fallen under the "spell ... cast by mysterious symbols of which the meaning has been forgotten" (ASEASUK-32).
It might be of interest that the next Baleh cloth Kedit described he named gajah meram (translated as broody giant or elephant) according precisely with the Batang Ai and upper Kapuas names. Kedit then explained that gajah meram was a metaphor for a successful headhunter possessively guarding his trophy. Gavin's preferred title for the design was Nising (2003:110), Lang's perennial victim and for the Iban, the ultimate loser and an unlikely candidate as a name for a powerful cloth. "Nising" is an example of my "secret" domain in Iban weaving. The weaver, when asked to name the design, presented a subterfuge name out of respect for the power of the design. Instead of simply calling it engkeramba (human figure), she gave Gavin a clue about what the design concerned by calling it by the non-threatening victim Nising. Gavin mentioned gajah meram as a less-preferred alternative name. Gavin's hypothesis that motifs were decorative and nonsymbolic must have greatly inhibited any progression from clue (powerful cloth/need powerful name/Nising/habitual loser/doesn't make sense) to truth (powerful cloth/need powerful name/gajah meram/fits).
The next Baleh cloth Kedit correctly named as rang Jugah. Addressing a sungkit cloth, he gave the Saribas names for a pair of motifs which are commercially called "dancing figures." These attributions Gavin also called improvisations though she does not know the names of these motifs herself. So of the three "Baleh" cloths described and one sungkit, Kedit was 100% correct with the designs for which the WE had field information and 100% wrong for those which they had none. To misquote Thomas Huxley: "It is not what is right, it is who is right which is important."
With Kedit's inclusion in Gavin's review, he now joins Margaret Linggi and Empiang Jabu, Iban regarded in Sarawak as textile authorities, and Enyan anak Usen, my earlier co-author, on Gavin's tugong bula of Iban misinformants. All have presented information inconvenient to Gavin. It is of little surprise then that the two women in the Tun Jugah Foundation researching Iban textiles have been told not to disagree in writing with Western "experts"; only write that their own research has unearthed differences. Their futures are uncertain because, as Sutlive writes: "I ... am mystified in Traude's persistence in denying the symbolic nature of Iban images.... It is the creation and manipulation of these symbols that have made Ibans Ibans." (personal communication).
Gavin asserted that Iban should restrict their comments to textiles from their natal river system (ASEASUK:32). Iban must suffer some disability preventing them asking questions and receiving correct answers, a disability not shared by researchers from the West. Kedit is a world-traveled Iban and Enyan spent the last 30 years of her life in the Skrang, where she often advised Skrang weavers. Her domicile was a short bus ride from the Saribas. Four Iban have now published about their textiles. All four have been rejected by the WE. The animist Enyan and the three educated Iban had the same fatal flaw. They wrote that the cloths symbolically constructed meaning and presented a tableau vivant, or in Gavin's words: "the problem is that Heppell and others start with the assumption that Iban patterns must contain 'symbols', and if they do not, it renders them 'meaningless'" (ASEASUK32). Derek and Monica Freeman recorded an original design analyzed by its creator (illustrated in both Iban Art (p.70) and the Seductive Warp Thread (p.93)) which provided a powerful story of Kumang weaving and Keling on the warpath and many other illustrations of symbolic representations. The Freemans too possess this fatal flaw of seeing symbols. It is a continuing mystery why Gavin does not also name them. If this is the Freeman mantle that King refers to, then on such a fundamental and simple matter as whether or not there were symbolic representations on Iban cloths, one is on firmer ground if one is consistent with Freeman's findings, corroborated by later Iban writers, than on Gavin's reliance on Gombrich's observations about forgotten symbols when many Iban quite clearly did not forget them. Rather annoyingly, they employed them.
On this matter, one feels for Enyan who would refuse to leave her loom and weave through the night to ensure an important part of a figure was completed in one session because, according to her, the figure "has the capacity to be harmful. Its house is 'up there' and it has a heart just like ours. I don't want him rising to his full size and threatening me" ("Bisi'buyu Bisi 'rumah iya din. Ati iyasama enggau ati kitai.... Ukai iya ngeregah aku). Let us be clear about this. Enyan was not producing some inanimate symbol like, for example, a turtle in Indian iconography which would symbolize long life. Enyan was producing a manifestation of the very spirit itself. As she wove, the motif was coming alive. And in her animist world, so did other spirits and objects, all the latter of which had their own spirit. For example, on pua' kumbu', the top of the main design is often bordered by a thickish white/black/white line, known as a sengkalan. A sengkalan is a chopping board. On a cloth, it is a manifestation of the spirit of such a board to prevent a captured spirit from escaping the cloth and attacking the living as it would be chopped up on the way out. With ideas such as these held by Iban, the WE and the Iban have no common ground on which to debate about the teeming world of Iban textiles.
These concerns are important not only for the Iban record but for the history of Southeast Asian textiles. The Iban have oral historical records and such variety in their textile designs and manufacture that it is possible to advance hypotheses about important 'how come' questions like how did weaving take root, how was it maintained and reinforced through time and the evolutionary question, why did it flourish in the first place and continue to do so. There might be better hypotheses than the evolutionary one I have advanced. That presents a challenge for textile scholars. I have not yet come across an alternative hypothesis.
It might be asked: why all this fuss about a textile culture which would normally be confined to an arts and crafts basket? The answer is that Iban textiles were absolutely central to the Iban way of life and, as such, gave women a significant degree of power to influence their menfolk. The Iban relationship with their gods, for example, could not operate without textiles. In the women's domain, the production of textiles was absolutely central to a woman's persona. Textiles defined a woman both during her life and after her death, especially in the Saribas. They plumbed the very essence of a woman's being. They engaged her with the gods, blessing her with power. In fact the subject of Iban textiles warrants being included in any university women's studies' program because, where else in the world is there another example of women manipulating material culture so significantly to their apparent advantage?
The Iban heritage might also offer insights into other Southeast Asian weaving traditions, so many of which have textiles associated with marriage. Gavin might pour scorn on the histories based on accounts from two eminent Paku bards Mujah anak Mambang and probably Luat anak Jabu. She must have missed the paragraph explaining the sources for the histories on p. 16 of the Seductive Warp Thread as she did the sources of the population extrapolations on p. 7-8. She also must have missed the p. 9 correlation of the Iban population in the Merakai in 2003 of 3076 with McKeown's of about 600 ex-Undup refugees only 20 years earlier, requiring every fertile woman to produce about one child annually to reach the 2003 population and support her assertion that there were no other Iban in the watershed. She also missed the many paragraphs on costly signals on pp. 105-109 and the genealogies showing leaders descended from great weavers on pp. 173-175, which addressed concerns Wadley raised. The histories do provide insights into migrations, divisions of the Ibanic and some rough dates. Skeuomorphs provide useful clues to the development of the textile traditions, including the beaded one. It is unlikely that a similar historical account could be constructed for any other weaving group in Indonesia outside Java and Bali and that is why the Ibanic are so important. While oral histories obviously have their limitations, they provide the only information available in a preliterate society and Iban oral histories are of a very high quality.
Ruth Barnes is in a pivotal position to influence the future of Iban textile research. She is curator of the Yale Art Gallery collection of Southeast Asian art which now possesses perhaps the best collection of Ibanic textiles in the world primarily through the generosity of Thomas Jaffe. He recently acquired a number of textiles from the superb and extraordinarily diverse and comprehensive collection assembled by Heribert Amann. No other public collection is on the cusp of being complete, though Dallas is likely to remain in the unique position of having a vestige of the excitement in the iconography of Iban textiles when one compares the vitality of Kedit's descriptions with the lifeless "buah this" and "buah that" of other collections. Yale still needs to embrace a few missing categories. Each of these categories has its particular interest for the history of Ibanic weaving. With their inclusion, there would be a full inventory of Ibanic textile materials under the one roof and, you never know, sometime in the future a researcher might visit it and conclude that the dynamism of these textiles was driven by sexual selection.
Rejoinder--Dr. Traude Gavin
In publishing a rejoinder there is always the risk of readers dismissing it as merely the other half of a mutual diatribe. It is for this reason that I responded only once (2008) to Heppell's several critiques of my research on Iban textiles, and my findings and analysis (2005, 2006, 2010). Heppell however recently stepped up his critical attack (2014) and when revisiting his earlier paper in the Borneo Research Bulletin (2010) it seemed necessary to put to rights at least one of his charges. A more detailed contextualization and constructive interpretation of Heppell's criticisms and the position that he appears to be taking and wishing to occupy in Iban Studies is in course of preparation.
For the moment let me address a quite specific point, which reveals Heppell's careless misreading of my work/writings. Heppell (2010) wrote that the Freemans viewed Iban cloth designs as containing "pictorial narratives;" he then claimed that, according to Gavin, such designs were "meaningless decoration" and Gavin therefore must demonstrate "why the Freemans were wrong."
Of course the Freemans were not wrong; nor did I say that they were. During my stay in Canberra in April 1993 when I visited the Freemans and they graciously made available to me their field notes and Monica's exquisite drawings of Iban cloth patterns, Monica Freeman told me that when collecting data on weaving in the early 1950s, she and Derek focused on modern, innovative pua patterns. By contrast, the objective of my study of 2003 was to list "the major traditional patterns," many of which are non-pictorial (p. vii). I referred throughout to this distinction between older, non-pictorial patterns and contemporary cloths which tend to include large-scale figurative designs (pp.19, 80, 83, 97, 104, 150-153, 165). Nowhere did I say that Iban patterns (whether figurative or not) are "meaningless decoration;" nor did I deny that some patterns "tell a story," as claimed by Heppell. Rather, I wrote that more recent cloths often include graphic designs of heroes and deities (p.152); I referred to these as examples of a "narrative style" (pp. 151, 153), at times retelling a "mythological story" (p.166).
Heppell's comments either show a profound lack of understanding of the issues at stake or they constitute a deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of my text. An exploration of the reasons for Heppell's extraordinary claims, which have very little precedence in Borneo Studies, needs to address the complex interactions between a reflexive anthropology, which gives expression to various local voices and alternative interpretations, and one which pursues an externally authorized, even an "imperial" anthropology which attempts to close down other ways of analyzing what are presented as received truths; this issue will be the subject of a forthcoming paper, which will further position Heppell's stance within current controversies in Southeast Asian textile studies, taking into account differences in evidential standards, the continuing influence of early studies, and the changes in approach by scholars in the interpretation of textiles.
Heppell has recently repeated his challenge to Gavin to demonstrate "why the Freemans were wrong" in his latest book, The Seductive Warp Thread, published by the Borneo Research Council (2014: 158). The book includes a 21-page appendix, entirely devoted to Gavin, which is a personalized attack on my published research, on the weavers who were my primary sources in Sarawak, and on the supervisors, examiners, and publishers of my doctoral thesis. Heppell's attack on my research needs to be challenged. Regrettably, my Communication (2015), discussing Heppell's monograph, could not be made available to readers here because of the BRC policy not to print reviews of their own publications.
Gavin, Traude 2003 Iban Ritual Textiles. Leiden: KITLV Press, Verhandelingen 205.
2008 Rejoinder. Brief Comments on Iban Art: Sexual Selection and Severed Heads--Weaving, Sculpture, Tattooing and Other Arts of the Iban of Borneo, by Michael Heppell, Limbang anak Melaka, and Enyan anak Usen (2005). Leiden/Amsterdam: C. Zwartenkot-Art Books/KIT Publishers and Women's War. An Update of the Literature on Iban Textiles, by Michael Heppell. Borneo Research Bulletin 37: 182-92, 2006. Borneo Research Bulletin 39: 274-8.
2015 Communication (with a Foreword by V.T. King). ASEASUK News. Newsletter of the Association of Southeast Asian Studies in the United Kingdom, No.58, Autumn: 25-35.
Heppell, Michael 2006 Women's War: An Update of the Literature on Iban Textiles. Borneo Research Bulletin 37: 182-92.
2010 Rejoinder: On my late Iban Co-Author. Borneo Research Bulletin 41: 286-93.
2014 The Seductive Warp Thread: An Evolutionary History of Ibanic Weaving. Phillips: Borneo Research Council [Borneo Research Council Material Culture Series No. 1].
Heppell, Michael and Limbang anak Melaka, Enyan anak Usen 2005 Iban Art: Sexual Selection and Severed Heads--Weaving, Sculpture, Tattooing and Other Arts of the Iban of Borneo. Leiden/Amsterdam: C. Zwartenkot-Art Books/KIT Publishers.
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|Article Type:||Letter to the editor|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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