In Focus

Ceremonial jacket (sape buri)

The Maloh populate the upper Kapuas River basin of West Kalimantan. They are known for their skill as silversmiths and for their decorated skirts (kain manik or kain lekok) and sleeveless jackets (sape manik or sape buri) that women don on important ceremonial occasions. The beaded geometric patterns and figurative imagery on these garments—dragons, serpents, dragon-dogs, crocodiles, and squatting humanlike figures—are shared by Ibanic and Kayanic groups. Among the hierarchical Maloh, the depiction of both supernatural animals and stylized figures (kakale'tau) were formally associated with funerary rites. The latter, squatting beings with upraised arms and splayed legs, were once linked to the ritual killing of slaves. As helpful spirits, kakale'tau accompanied and served aristocrats on their souls' journeys in the hereafter.

The Maloh also decorated their ceremonial clothing with Nassarius shells (parus or nassa). Unlike beaded patterns, each shell was stitched directly onto an other cloth indigo blue or black whose underside was padded with additional layers of fabric or bark cloth. The use of these shells, along with cowries (uang kulit kerang) and polished disks made from the ends of conus shells, points to an ancient affinity for shells among the Dayak that predates the introduction of small European glass trade beads.

In the tradition of investing something distant and foreign with prestige, this vest displays materials that were sought after by indigenous peoples during the colonial period. Set amid the stitched shells are swatches of red, yellow, and green trade felt; metallic sequins; and strips of multicolored trade cloth. This jacket's composition is enclosed in a rectangular frame of shells and further embellished on each side with European buttons. Along the bottom border, Dutch silver coins dating back to 1701 dangle from a single strand of tacked glass beads. Here, an array of materials, colors, and textures has been tastefully laid down by this jacket's maker to create a vibrant, powerful composition.

These embellishments also reflect a conscious effort to fill open space with an interlocking mesh of protective designs. Turned on their side and viewed horizontally, two serpentine, dragonlike creatures (naga or binawa) mirror each other, their profiled bodies, tendrils, bared teeth, and curling tongues clearly visible. Looking at this jacket as it was worn, the reverse side is anchored by a central spine of shells. When the jacket's two complementary halves are viewed together as one, they coalesce into the faces of supernatural creatures. This design (kungkasak) is said to be a combination of a dragonlike creature and a scorpion (whose pincers double as the naga's jaws). Their eyes are highlighted by circles of red felt, which along with their ovoid mouths and flaring nostrils are also composed of Nassarius shells. These garments had many ceremonial uses. According to some informants, this particular type of jacket was commonly worn by high-ranking women during the ritual naming of a child (manyauti).

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Ceremonial jacket (sape buri) 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), 148-149.