Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu @ Universiti Malaya Art Gallery

Browsing through six partitioned sections, the organisers successfully create a modern museum-style exhibition, complete with technology-aided displays that include the use of an augmented reality mobile app, video projections, and recreated environs with sound boxes. A university research and collaboration project that focuses on one longhouse community, the content is light and understandably so, as most people from Peninsular Malaysia (myself included) have little knowledge about aborigine cultures that share the same nationality. Documentary loops about Iban women and the weaving of Pua threads are well-narrated – albeit with a foreign accent – and sufficiently draw attention without over-emphasis on the exotic.

Weaving Pua Kumbu - Iban ceremonial textile [from The Star Online YouTube channel]

The wonderful “Pua Slider” utilises mobile tablets to associate visual motifs on a stretched piece of fabric, while QR codes which generate maker and title information offer gimmicky technological innovation. Animated mythologies of the hero-god Keling and his wife Kumang are told by master weaver Bangie anak Embol, the most memorable story being ‘Tangga Beji’ which recounts one’s failed attempt at ascending to heaven, a familiar tale across many cultures. Craft skill and tedious effort manifest within woven fabric, old designs still resonating with a contemporary aesthetic via repetitive shapes and simple contrasts. Appreciating beautiful textiles hung from the ceiling, one wonders about the preservation of things, and how often its original meaning and utility must be stripped away in order to be preserved.

Installation view of the “Pua Slider”

“…Beji was a mythical hero / warrior from the Kapuas region in Borneo. His greatest ambition was to reach Petara, the supreme spirit, by touching heaven. So he and his followers searched for the tallest trees in the forest to make a ladder to climb up to heaven. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, he failed every single time, and when he fell, the ladder that he had built was scattered throughout the land, and pieces of it turned to rock. These rocks, known as Tangga Beji, can still be found along rivers today.”
- Tangga Beji, paraphrased from Jabu, E. (1991). Pua Kumbu – The Pride of the Iban Cultural Heritage, referenced from Low, A. (2008). Social Fabric: Circulating Pua Kumbu Textiles of the Indigenous Dayak Iban People in Sarawak, Malaysia [Academia.edu link]

Title: Baya Nanka Nanga Mandai
Maker: Baru anak Langi