Ceremonial cloth (pua) with shields aslant (simbang terabai)
The Simbang Terabai, or Shields Aslant, motif is one of the first designs a young apprentice weaver creates. On a technical level, it is a study in learning to tie and form straight lines and negotiate curves, bends, and various shapes that make up complex elements and forms in the vast repertoire of pua kumbu designs. On a higher level, the weaver is creating a kind of mystical armor that will clothe and protect her as she begins to advance in the art of weaving, a journey that can take an entire lifetime. Once a novice weaver completes such a design correctly, she has succeeded in grasping both the technical and spiritual skills required to weave more potent designs incorporating anthropomorphic elements or high-ranking motifs bearing supernaturally powerful names.
It is common practice for a mother or more spiritually mature female relative to begin tying the knots of a young apprentice's cloth before she is allowed to continue it. This is clearly evident in the case of this textile, where the pun, or foundation, of the central motif is preceded by a selaku, or lower band, consisting of the twin buah belum, fruit of the belum tree. (The selaku cannot be woven by novice weavers.) Belum in archaic Iban means "not yet." The fruit of the belum tree is thus an analogical device used by mature weavers to depict unripe trophy heads waiting to be "plucked," suggesting that the young weaver is now beginning her journey to the day when she can successfully "pluck trophy heads" of her own by weaving them herself. It is analogous to the mother or older relative extending a challenge to the novice to complete her design with care and daring.
The collector of this cloth mentions in his notes that this textile was collected from the Ngemah region and was used in a sacrificial rite in which a pig was covered with this cloth before being slaughtered. Ritual blankets with designs of weaponry and armor (blades and shields) are often used for ceremonies wherein spiritual protection is sought from Iban deities against malevolent spirits.
The Simbang Terabai design is found in all Iban weaving traditions regardless of region. This cloth is a fine illustration of the Ngemah variant of the design. It shows not only the shield aslant but also the handle of the shield intertwining with the handle of another shield. The uncolored chevron-shaped motifs in the center contrast beautifully with the study of maroon burgundy straight lines and interlocking angles, sprouting into very well-executed tendrils. Indeed, it represents an almost perfectly symmetrical work revealing great potential and must have made its novice weaver and her female kin very proud.
Vernon Kedit, "Ceremonial cloth (pua) with shields aslant (simbang terabai)" in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 156-157.
Learn more about the Iban people.