Ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu)
Quintessentially Saribas in style, this pristine 19th-century pua kumbu or ritual blanket from the Iban people of Sawawak (northwest Borneo) represents one of the best works to come from the Layar, a tributary of the Saribas river in the south of Sarawak. The Saribas region is known for its fine weave and matchless designs of intricately intertwining coils and fronds imitating foliage and forming dense and compact motifs replete with esoteric symbolism.
Pua kumbu are used to create sacred space at ceremonies and festivals because they are believed to be imbued with spiritual energy harnessed by the weavers when they "capture" the spirits of designs and "trap" them in these blankets. These ritual blankets are hung to create a perimeter of sacred space where gods and prominent ancestors are invited to be present as honored guests at festivals. They are also draped over offerings or wrapped around ritual objects used in various rites to infuse the accouterments with spiritual energy. All pua kumbu woven by the women of a bilek become the property of the bilek and are passed down as heirlooms.
All pua kumbu display a main central design, and all designs have their own names. The main design that makes up most of this blanket is known as Bali Bugau Kantu, or "That Which Metamorphosed into the Enemy's Cloth, the Kantu," reinterpreted from a looted pua kumbu by its progenitor Mengan Tuai, and then imitated by competent weavers throughout the Saribas in furious competition to execute the finest rendition. Additionally, ritual blankets are given secret praise-names by their respective weavers, which are passed down only from mother to daughter. One such praise-name, given by its weaver to her Bali Bagau Kantu, was translated into English:
Oh! I am torn with grief and sorrow for my elder brother Chundau who was slain and is lost forever; he will turn into a giant slithering sea serpent, whose back is striped with scales white and black!
Oh! I am torn with grief and sorrow for my elder brother Sempaok who was slain, whose legs had sunk in the mud; he will take the form of a huge ferocious screaming gibbon!
Oh! I am torn with grief and sorrow for my brother Bada' who was slain; he will become a terrifying monster crocodile which opens its jaws wide.
The anthropomorphic figures in the central design of this pua kumbu correspond to the fantastic creatures mentioned in the text above. Here, the weaver tells a story, decipherable only to those privy to the allegorical devices employed in the lexicon of Iban ritual textile designs, motifs, and repeated patterns.
The startling and unexpected splashes of indigo blue to accentuate circular lozenges at the top and bottom of the central design are curious, as the use of indigo blue in a central design is ritually restricted in the Saribas, being the color of mourning. The weaver of this pua kumbu probably wanted to interpret the lozenges as representing trophy heads taken in war. Hence, she used the color blue, which is associated with death.
The central design is visually complemented by chevronlike upper edge motifs known as the Sepit Api (fire tong), while the lower edge motifs are very well-embellished pyramid-shaped Pucuk Tubu (bamboo shoots). The central design is also flanked by identical vertical bands displaying omen birds. Hot fire tongs and sharp bamboo shoots with minuscule fibers that cause the skin to itch are pictorial devices used by the weaver to contain the imprisoned "spirit" of the central design. Omen birds calm the spirit with their singing. It is believed that should the spirit of a design break free from a ritual blanket, it would wreak havoc in the community and bring misfortune—even death—to the weaver and her immediate family. The selvedges of this pua kumbu appear to be colored white but in fact have been left uncolored and undyed—the mark of excellence in the Saribas.
The Dallas Museum of Art's brilliantly executed Bali Bugau Kantu with its deep burgundy maroon background wash and near-perfect symmetry was certainly woven by a master weaver, if not a grandmaster, and by Saribas Iban standards, owing to its distinctive uncolored selvedges, outranks all other pua kumbu in the DMA's collection.
Vernon Kedit, "Ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu)" 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), 152-155.
Learn more about the Iban people.