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Rejoinder: on my late Iban co-author.

Traude Gavin has raised three matters in her BRB Vol. 39 "Rejoinder: Brief Comments on Iban Art and Women's War" (2008: 274-78) which warrant some comment. They concern the central question of whether or not the Iban conceived of their big cloths as having some kind of pictorial representation; the credibility of Enyan anak Usen, coauthor of the book Iban Art; and a small matter of the provenance of cloths illustrated in that book.

Addressing the central question of pictorial representation in Iban cloth designs, Gavin's contention is that the main concern of a pua' design is the "decoration of a flat surface without leaving empty spaces rather than representational depiction." (1) In her "Rejoinder," Gavin wonders if I have read her book. For her, one instance of my apparent neglect is my reference to her barely using the Freemans' field notes in the context of pictorial narratives, or, as Gavin argues, lack of them, in Iban cloths. I suggested the Freemans' notes challenged Gavin's own interpretation. I described one pua' sketched by Monica Freeman and illustrated in Iban Art with a pair of female figures at the top, two pairs of male figures at the base and pairs of headless corpses in between. (2) According to Derek Freeman's annotations, the design depicts Keling traveling through the heavens taking heads while Kumang weaves a cloth, the design of which had been revealed by Meni. Derek Freeman described this cloth as a pictorial representation and not as meaningless decoration.

In their notes, Monica wrote of the Baleh Iban: "The extraordinary designs on puas created by the women, represented stories of people, of head-hunters, of gods and spirits (antus) in the form of animals, birds, insects, reptiles, dragons, and serpents each having a special power of its own." Again, Monica is writing about pictorial representation and not about decorative aesthetics.

The Keling and Kumang design recorded by the Freemans has named figures. Writing about Saribas cloths, Gavin, in her Iban Ritual Textiles stated that a number of anonymous informants had informed her or confirmed to her in a number of locations that representations of human figures in cloths were simply "cartoons." (3) Anonymous Baleh weavers regarded such cloths with "contempt and scorn." (4) A male weaver, Nicholas Bryan, from neighboring Saratok, supported her claims by telling her that designs with human figures were made in his longhouse on demand for Chinese traders, a surprising observation, given that Gavin had earlier written that weaving had virtually ceased in the Saribas area by the end of the Second World War, long before the start of a flourishing overseas market for Iban textiles. (5) If these views are an accurate reflection of Iban weaving, then Gavin's contention that figures (and other motifs) feature in designs simply for decorative functions, has credence. What Gavin must do, however, to substantiate her case, is to demonstrate why the Freemans were wrong in their annotation of the Keling and Kumang cloth and their general view that cloths told "stories." With the publication of BRB 40, Gavin also needs to deal with Vernon Kedit's analysis of high-ranking Stambakpua 'kumbu' which, like the Baleh cloths, reveals a clear pictorial narrative, and supports the statement of another Saribas Iban, Empiang Jabu, who had earlier written that cloths tell stories. (6)

On the second matter, Gavin raises the issue of Enyan's credibility as, indeed, she had earlier done with Margaret Linggi. (7) Enyan's observations on Iban weaving are important both to an understanding of Iban weaving and to the identification of sungkit designs, the accurate identification of which obviously is of great interest to Gavin. Her credibility, consequently, deserves some scrutiny.

In The Women's Warpath (8), Gavin questions Enyan's interpretations and, in BRB 39, queries a long list of designs identified by Enyan. (9) Gavin wrote (10):
 According to Heppell, his informant Enyan identified one motif
 (commonly referred to in the literature as a "dancing figure") as
 Meni, goddess of the waters and patron of weavers and dyers.
 However, during a later interview in Kuching in 1988, for which I
 was also present, Enyan identified the same motif as "scorpion"
 (kala). When I spoke to her again several years later, she claimed
 to not know the motif at all. It would seem that Enyan was just as
 much at a loss with regard to this elusive motif, and was merely
 groping for an explanation when pressed by overeager ethnographers.


Gavin, presumably after speaking to Enyan again, also wrote to me that Enyan knew nothing about weaving.

In my guise as an overeager ethnographer, something might be said about the methodology applied in collecting information from Enyan. Derek Freeman had told me that he intended to write a book on Iban weaving. As far as I was concerned, that was something he was going to do and, consequently, not something I would do. In 1984, I suggested to Enyan that she visit Australia because I thought she might enjoy the interest in weaving of many women in Melbourne. She lived in Melbourne in our house for just over 4 months. She wove for most of the day and talked non-stop about weaving whenever she had company. After a bit, Marguerite, my wife, and I decided to write down and tape record what she had to say. When we did not fully understand, we would ask for elaboration. It was Enyan who took the initiative to talk. As I had employment, Marguerite did most of the recording. One thing Enyan was particularly interested in was looking at Iban cloths. On many, she gave an explanation of what a design meant for her, explaining how individual elements contributed to a coherent whole. In the four months in Australia, she completed one sungkit and two pilih cloths as well as setting up a number of looms for sungkit, pilih and ikat cloths to demonstrate each process to interested people.

So, how does Enyan's credibility stand up to close examination? I came into contact with her through a Time/Life expedition which wanted to include weaving as a subject that would be photographed and written about in a proposed book on the Iban. I asked contacts I had in the Batang Ai about weavers and there was unanimous agreement that Enyan was the most knowledgeable weaver in their midst. Her people, therefore, endorsed her knowledge.

In Iban Art, Enyan was the author who provided the verses about threads and cloths. Gavin presumably found no informants, including Enyan on her visit to her, who narrated such verses; otherwise she would surely have included them in Iban Ritual Textiles. Verses included:
 Ubong burak ketawa ganggak ganggak gaga gaga ke orang subak bungai
 ini
 Ubong engkerebai ketawa nya lekai minta sepoh ke orang tangkai
 bungai ini
 Kayu beting ketawa nya rising minta sepoh ke orang pating bungai
 ini
 Ubong kunyit, nyabak sengit, minta sepoh ke orang empenit buah
 becandi.

 White threads laughing thunderously, happy that these flowers have
 been scooped up
 Red threads titter needing to gorge themselves on bundles of these
 flowers
 Scarlet threads snarl wanting to gorge themselves on stalks of
 these flowers
 Yellow threads wail plaintively desiring to gorge themselves on the
 fruits hanging below the
 high wooden bosses. (11)

 Kain beludu, tenun indu' antu, iya keh sebubu baka indu' gamang;
 Kain sungkit, munyi indu' papit, besarang pucok menuang;
 Kain kebat, baka indu' sepapat, baka lepelit, baka bintang, tumboh
 atas remang;
 Kain celum, baka indu' lidun, besarang pucok menuang.

 Velvet skirt, woven by female spirits, who throng like bees;
 Embroidered skirt, sounding like insects making their nests in the
 crown of Octomeles trees;
 Ikat skirt, like fireflies blinking like stars living above the
 high cirrus;
 Black skirt like hornets nesting at the top of Octomeles trees.
 (12)


Enyan's attribution of names to cloth patterns is a second area raised about her credibility. In Iban Art, we argued that different weavers could interpret the same design quite differently, using one example in which Gavin, Freeman, a donor to the Sarawak Museum, Edric Ong in the upper Baleh and Enyan gave different names to a particular design. We were very careful to attribute Enyan's identifications to her, so readers could make their own judgements about each attribution. In his recent article, Kedit is also very clear about the sources of his information about cloth names. In contrast, Gavin's informants remain anonymous. This becomes particularly noticeable, for example, when Gavin attributes Iban names to a couple of Kantu' skirts without apparently having visited any Kantu' settlements. (13)

It might be worth mentioning that Enyan grew up across the West Kalimantan border between the Delok and Leboyan rivers, an area in which sungkit weaving remained popular until recently. (14) Enyan moved to Skim Skrang where she lived in a settlement with Skrang and Batang Ai Iban, frequently visited nearby Betong and Miri, where her daughter lived, and also visited the Ngemah and Katibas rivers. Like Gavin, she would have had every opportunity to talk to Iban weavers about cloths, and did so frequently.

Gavin is particularly concerned about Enyan's naming of sungkit designs. She writes: "Heppell's reliance on [Enyan's] interpretations is particularly disconcerting when they are applied to ancient sungkit patterns (plates 18, 57, 83) for which we are in dire need of reliable data." (15) Gavin comes to this view not because she had found contradictory interpretations, but because she had found no informants who could give her any interpretations at all in her research predominantly in the Baleh and Saribas; not the Batang Ai where Enyan lived and which, according to Gavin and Barnes, was the center of sungkit production. (16)

Plate 18 has three motifs. The first is the "dancing figure" which I will return to shortly. The second, in Iban, is Antu pala' beringka gitang ba dilang Antu Gerasi and is the motif represented in plate 57. Enyan breaks this figure down to some individual elements, lending credence to her attribution. (17) Other Batang Ai weavers have agreed with this identification. The attribution, however, is different for the Saribas. (18) There is one common denominator, however, between the two attributions. They both feature the Great Ogre, Antu Gerasi. The third motif (also plate 63 on Gavin's list of Enyan's praise names) Enyan calls naga. Again she names various elements in the coiled dragon including a net to make it invisible. (19) In The Women's Warpath, Gavin shows a pua' sungkit cloth with the same motif which she calls buah naga. (20)

If we continue with Enyan's identification of sungkit motifs, plate 59 shows a buah bunut. Gavin shows the same design and calls it buah bunut or buah bintang bertabur. (21) Enyan called a slightly different sungkit, bintang dara tumboh di langit or 'virgin stars sparkling at dusk in the heavens,' so there is a correspondence in terms of sungkit representing the heavens at night, representations which have meaning for agriculture and fertility. Plate 96 is another heavenly sungkit with a common Batang Ai design of the constellation, the Seven Sisters. We then come to plate 83, which Enyan calls Bong Medang. I later ascertained Bong Medang was another name for Pungga, a cousin of Keling and one of his strongest lieutenants. Pungga had a number of praise names, one of which is the one Enyan gave. Gavin shows a similar motif on the top row of a pua' sungkit which she calls Bong Midang. (22)

Consequently, apart from the head tree which Gavin was not able to identify, there is a close correspondence between Enyan's and Gavin's attributions.

Finally, there are the "dancing figures." Gavin's account of the scorpion incident is correct. Enyan was at an international workshop in Kuching and was the only ulu Batang Ai weaver present among many from the Saribas and Baleh. She was standing in front of the sungkit cloth she had woven in Australia in 1984. As she explained later, she was malu--which in that context meant that she was embarrassed, concerned that she would be regarded as making inflated claims for a design she had woven. (23) She therefore said kala because it was nothing. In Australia, there was a small gawai in which Enyan revealed the names of the three cloths she had woven to an assemblage of Melbourne weavers and other people she had met. On the sungkit, there were 8 rows of figures--one row she called Antu Jawing; three, Bong Medang; two Dara Meni; and two were the head tree. (24)

One might legitimately ask if there is a logic to having Meni represented on a sungkit cloth. Both in the Batang Ai and the Saribas, sungkit cloths were used to receive a newly taken head before being paraded up and down a longhouse gallery in the ritual naku pala. Meni is an underworld figure as also are naga (dragon) and remaung (tiger) which are frequently represented on sungkit cloths. The underworld is associated with fertility. Hence, many sungkit cloths have representations of the constellations which are associated with fertility through their role in the Iban agricultural calendar. The taking of a head is also strongly related with fertility as a number of authors writing on the Iban, including myself, have remarked. Consequently, having Meni represented on a sungkit cloth does not fly in the face of Iban logic associated with a cloth, the primary use of which was to receive a newly taken head.

Gavin has argued persuasively that the "dancing figures" are influenced by an old Indian printed design of dancing women. I have shown cloths with these "dancing figures" to Batang Ai Iban and they have been unanimous in calling the figures "Iban" or "antu," without knowing who they represent. The Saribas identify the same motif as a human figure, though differently from Enyan. (25) Gavin, in contrast, having found no one to identify the motif, concludes that: "it appears that in the Iban case a figurative Indian motif was eventually reinterpreted as a decorative pattern." (26) Which, of course, produces confirmation that Iban design is purely decorative.

Gavin gives a list of 16 incorrect attributions made by Enyan (plus plate 18 discussed above which did not make the list, but was obviously in doubt). The list appears devastatingly long. But before we write Enyan off, it might be worth examining how her identifications stand up to scrutiny:

i. Plates 13 and 67 are called ringka' antu pala' nyabak lelega' duduk atas bedilang. Linggi shows the same design and gives the same praise name; (27)

ii. Plate 19 is called nabau ngerarang menoa, a common praise name for cloths with nabau designs. Gavin shows the same basic motif which she calls "serpent pattern (buah nabau);" (28)

iii. Plates 52, 53, 54 and 55 are called crocodiles. In one, they are basking on the shore eating bluebottles, a second is small headed and carrying heads at his waist, a third has them feasting on people and a fourth has them eyeballing each other. Gavin shows cloths which are less obviously crocodiles and calls them "crocodile pattern (buah baya)." (29) Empiang Jabu shows a cloth with two lines of crocodiles facing each other and a third in which they are swimming in opposite directions which she calls "colliding crocodiles." Enyan consequently saw crocodiles doing something while Gavin sees only crocodiles in a design. The difference is stark. Even if Enyan was wrong in what the crocodiles were doing, she clearly believed that the weaver was attempting to do more than simply weave a decorative pattern; (30)

iv. Plate 56 is a jacket similar to the one collected by Hose in the Baram and illustrated in Haddon & Start. (31) It has a crocodile surrounded by coils and is called "crocodile swimming up a backwater creating ripples." Coils or zigzags are a typical way Iban show ripples in the water;

v. Plates 18, 57, 63, 83 and 96 are sungkit already discussed;

vi. Plate 68 is called "Keling's sleeping platform." I have not seen any other reference to this particular design, but similar sleeping platform motifs are common in the Saribas;

vii. Plate 71 is called "creeper motif." Gavin illustrates two similar cloths: one she calls "interlocking pattern (buah berasok)" and the second "vine-like pattern (buah berinjan or buah belulai);" (32)

viii. In plate 85, four rows of figures are identified. I have not seen any other identification of these figures;

ix. Plate 97 is called "roots of the nur tree." Again, I have not seen any other reference to this particular design.

So, to sum up Enyan's performance, she seems on the mark in 12 of the plates. I have had independent verification of her skull tree identification. The jury is out on Meni, Keling's sleeping platform, the four rows of figures, and the nur tree. That probably correlates quite well with Gavin's own record in Iban Ritual Textiles, of identification of designs for which she would not have had access to the original weaver. She positively identifies the designs of at least 27 cloths in private or museum collections. Attributions like buah engkeramba', as Kedit points out, (33) and the "anthropomorphic figures and gajai pattern" are certainly likely to mystify Saribas weavers now ensconced in Sebayan. Add the vine and the "interlocking" patterns and the number in play increases.

Gavin's third point was an apparent lack of provenance of the vast majority of the illustrations of pieces in Iban Art from anonymous private collections which were given "precise" rivers of origin. As I am sure Gavin is aware, the flow of artifacts to the international market usually starts with inland runners purchasing objects from longhouses or shopkeepers in small bazaars bartering consumer items for objects owned by their customers. Purchases directly from runners or such shopkeepers can reasonably reliably be provenanced to a river. That does not necessarily mean that a cloth was woven in that river area as cloths travel, particularly through marriage and inheritance.

To sum up the discussion on weaving, one of the purposes of Iban Art was to add the authors' weight to Linggi's, Jabu's, and the Freemans' view that Iban cloth designs contain a pictorial narrative of meaning to the weaver herself. Gavin argues a counter case--that Iban weaving is decorative and does not tell a story. As knowledge recedes with well-versed weavers passing on, there is a definite prospect that future researchers will be reliant on the written material now being produced. They will have a stark choice of opposites. Gavin's gravitas is enhanced by having well-respected scholars like Ruth Barnes adding their weight as joint authors of articles such as the one referred to which claims that the Saribas plundered their old sungkit cloths from the Batang Ai and that the dancing figures are simply some "decorative pattern." (34) We foreign researchers are reliant on our co-authors, informants, or their relatives for the data to interpret in our work. When our informants or their relatives stand up to be counted by presenting their own material, their contributions should not be despatched to the rubbish bin without reasoned consideration. I am sure that individually, Margaret Linggi and Enyan anak Usen, in their lifetimes, talked to many more weavers than Gavin and I have, combined. A new Iban contributor has recently entered the lists in Vernon Kedit. He still has a lot more to say based on the knowledge entrusted to him by now deceased weavers in his family. We should value and treat with academic respect what these experts have to say and encourage more of them to speak up and, as Kedit will do, correct our own failings and misinterpretations, which certainly will include mine.

(1) Gavin, Traude, Iban Ritual Textiles. KITLV Press, Leiden, 2003, p. 242.

(2) Heppell, Michael, Limbang anak Melaka and Enyan anak Usen, Iban Art: Sexual Selection and Severed Heads. KIT, Leiden, 2005, p. 70.

(3) Gavin, Traude, Iban Ritual Textiles. KITLV Press, Leiden, 2003, p. 247.

(4) ibid., p. 282.

(5) ibid., pp. 17-18. Krian weavers share the same traditions as Saribas weavers.

(6) Jabu, Datuk Paduka Empiang, "Pua Kumbu--The Pride of the Iban Cultural Heritage," In: Lucas Chin and Valerie Mashman, eds., Sarawak Cultural Legacy: A Living Tradition. Atelier Society, Kuching, 1991, pp. 75-89.

(7) ibid., p. 150. Gavin wrote that Linggi had made a number of "mix-ups" in her "catalogue" without identifying any of them. Gavin used this claim as a justification for totally ignoring Linggi's work.

(8) Gavin, Traude, "Rejoinder to Heppell," BRB, 39, 2008, p. 276.

(9) ibid., p. 278.

(10) Gavin, Traude, The Women's Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1996, p.73.

(11) Heppell et al, op. cit., p. 43.

(12) Ibid., p. 89.

(13) Gavin, Traude, The Women's Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1996, pp. 64-65.

(14) Gavin, Traude and Ruth Barnes, "Iban Prestige Textiles and the Trade in Indian Cloth: Inspiration and Perception," Textile History, 30, I, 1999, p. 86. Gavin and Barnes's assertions about the rivers which did not produce pua 'sungkit must deal with the fact that Kantu' produced sungkit cloths which followed the same formula as the Iban. It seems probable that other Ibanic groups also did, as they certainly produced sungkit pieces. That would suggest that sungkit was very ancient, probably following silak in the development of techniques and preceding pilih, ikat and songket. That means that the Iban were weaving sungkit when they first crossed over the present border into Sarawak in the middle of the 16th century and all Iban groups in Sarawak would have known the technique.

(15) Gavin, Traude, Rejoinder to Heppell, BRB, 39, 2008, p. 276.

(16) Gavin, Traude and Ruth Barnes, "Iban Prestige Textiles and the Trade in Indian Cloth: Inspiration and Perception," Textile History, 30, I, 1999, p. 86. They write that sungkit "appears to be limited to the Ulu Ai area."

(17) Heppell et al, op. cit., p. 73.

(18) Vernon Kedit, personal communication, who is writing on this subject himself. I do not want to steal his thunder by revealing who the figure represents.

(19) Heppell et al, op. cit., p. 78.

(20) Gavin, Traude, The Women's Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1996, p. 37.

(21) ibid., p. 36.

(22) ibid., p. 44.

(23) Not to mention mentioning the name of a design she had woven. Marguerite and I, in contrast, were regarded as family.

(24) The pua' is illustrated in Vale, Trevor and Michael Heppell, "Ritual Fabric of the Iban Dayak," Tribal The Magazine of Tribal Art, 29, 2002, p. 79. Quite why I would want to press Enyan to name this motif has always mystified me.

(25) Vernon Kedit, personal communication, who will be writing on this subject and, again, I do not want to steal his thunder. I have no doubt about his attribution in both cases, given the purpose of these pua' sungkit in the Saribas.

(26) Gavin, Traude and Ruth Barnes, "Iban Prestige Textiles and the Trade in Indian Cloth: Inspiration and Perception," Textile History, 30, I, 1999, p. 95.

(27) Linggi, Datin Amar Margaret, Ties That Bind: Iban Ikat Weaving. Tun Jugah Foundation, 2001, p. 85.

(28) Gavin, Trande, The Women's Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1996, pp. 34-35.

(29) ibid., pp. 39-41.

(30) Jabu, op. cit., p. 89.

(31) Haddon, A.C. & L.E. Start, Iban or Sea Dayak Fabrics and Their Patterns. Ruth Bean, Carlton, 1982, p. 51.

(32) Gavin, Traude, The Women's Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1996, pp. 47 and 49 respectively.

(33) Kedit, Vernon, "Restoring Panggau Libau: A Reassessment of Engkeramba' in Saribas Iban Ritual Textiles," BRB, 40, 2009, pp. 222-223.

(34) Gavin, Traude and Ruth Barnes, "Iban Prestige Textiles and the Trade in Indian Cloth: Inspiration and Perception," Textile History, 30, 1, 1999, pp. 86 and 95 respectively.
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Date:Jan 1, 2010
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