Borneo art pieces to light up your home

Sabah and Sarawak’s many ethnic groups produce a very wide range of traditional handicrafts using natural materials of the jungles and forests, and also textiles. These craft skills are still very much alive. The function of handicrafts practiced by the indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak was originally intended to protect their shelter, act as defense covers, or to find and process food in the best way. Although the production of these various items is traditionally more focused on the function of the item, many of these pieces are now not only functional, but can also act as aesthetic statement pieces for your home.

To preserve and prevent the craft heritage and skills from dying, we dive into some of the art pieces you can bring home to support the local traditional handicraft scene and the craftspeople in Sabah and Sarawak.

1) Pua Kumbu

Traditional weavers in Sarawak are acknowledged to be the finest weavers in all of Borneo. The best example is the Pua Kumbu cloth, by the Iban tribe which is handwoven from individually-dyed threads on backstrap loom with imaginative motifs. The Pua Kumbu cloth is very important to the Iban, and used in many ceremonies to mark important life events in the community including for births, marriages, and funerals. 

Photo Source: Suara Sarawak

2) Terabai Iban / Kelembit Kenyah

The Sarawak armor shields also called, Perisai Sarawak was used for protection by the people of Borneo during early times. These headhunting gears are called by many names such as “keliau”, “kelembit”, “telawang” in Kenyah, Kayan, Ngaju and Uut Danum. Meanwhile in Iban, they are commonly referred to as “terabai”. While headhunting is no longer practised, decorated shields continue to be used for ritual performances. In the modern days, these armor shields are used as decorative pieces in the home. 

3) Kain Dastar

The beautiful handwoven Kain Dastar is a known craft of the Iranun weavers of Kota Belud, Sabah. Although it is made by the Iranun weavers of Kota Belud, the Dastar is used by other ethnic groups as ceremonial headgear. It is usually woven using bright colored threads with metallic gold highlights to enhance the richness of the design. Kain Dastar is traditionally worn as a ceremonial head cloth or ‘Sigah’ that often completes the wearers’ traditional attire and is donned at festive occasions, cultural ceremonies and big life events. Today, the Kain Dastar is incorporated in contemporary designs, from handbags to decorative household items such as table runners. The production of dastar needs creativity and keen observation on the part of the craftsperson especially during the mencolek bunga (pattern preparation stage) process. Threads of various colours are used to create designs which include plants, animals and geometrical shapes.

4) Nyiru

In Sabah, paddy winnowing fan or “nyiru'', was traditionally used to separate the paddy grain from its chaff. Made from thin strips of the Bemban leaf stem, Nyiru are essentially shallow oblong, egg-shaped or round trays that are used as winnows for paddy and other farm and household applications. Rungus, a native indigenous group inhabiting the northern part of Sabah, are well known for their fine skills in producing these trays. Several other indigenous groups in Sabah produce Nyiru of different patterns. In modern homes, these items are used both as utility trays and decorative items. 

5) Gayang / Bajau Machete / Parang Bajau

The Bajau men are skilled craftsmen, known for their handcrafted machetes. The Bajau machetes are also sought after because of their fine craftsmanship and carving featuring Bajau traditional motives. The uniqueness of quality and design distinguishes the parang Bajau from other types of machetes. These weapons of self-defense for the community in the past have much like the function of the keris in the Peninsular Malaysia. It now serves more as a souvenir to be taken home by tourists or given as gifts.

Photo source: The Star

6) Sape

The Sape’ (also known as Sambe’ or Sampe’), is a long lute-like stringed instrument made from a single bole of wood, originating from Orang Ulu subtribes like the Kayan and Kenyah communities in Sarawak, and Dayak in Kalimantan. Carved out of the bole of Adau wood, the sape is believed to have magical healing properties in the olden days. It was originally a two-stringed instrument which was used for healing rituals and celebrations. These days, the Sape extends to three or four strings, different types of wood are used and elaborate motifs are added to the face. It is also celebrated by many for its enchanting sounds, coupled by melodic Kenyah folksongs played on the instrument.

Photo source: The Tuyang

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