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Recent Material Culture Studies on Borneo

Bernard Sellato
p. 163-172
Référence(s) :

Michael Heppell, The Seductive Warp Thread. An Evolutionary History of Ibanic Weaving, Phillips, ME: The Borneo Research Council, Material Culture Series, No. 1, 2014, 189 p., appendixes, bibliography, glossary, index.

Michael Heppell, Communing with the Dark Side. Borneo’s Masks & Masquerades, Phillips, ME: The Borneo Research Council, Material Culture Series, No. 2, 2015, 195 p., glossary, bibliography, index.

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1Up to the latter part of the twentieth century, material culture studies, centered on the artefact per se, remained primarily descriptive. Artefacts collected by explorers, colonial personnel, geologists, or missionaries were stored in museums. Curators or scholars studied them, often with little information on their ethnic origins or their function and meaning among the people who produced them, thus providing little insight into those peoples’ social lives.

2The concept of material culture now covers a much broader scope, as it is concerned with the forms, uses, and meanings of objects, images, and environments in everyday life. Material culture is the product of the interaction of people and their material world, and one means by which culture is stored and transmitted. An artefact—no longer just a “thing”—is a social creation, and material culture reflects the conceptual framework of a society. Through the process of their creation and use, artefacts, as agents with a social life of their own, intervene in the construction of society and social identities. Material culture, therefore, is examined in order to procure an understanding of the society that created it.

3Material culture studies—now an interdisciplinary field including anthropology, sociology, archaeology, art history, and museum studies—are concerned with artefacts’ social, cultural, economic, and symbolic context, hence with the linkage between these and social relations, and investigate the ways in which objects participate in socializing people into culture. They encompass other fields as well: environmental studies, agronomy, technology, cognition science, health sciences, and religion and rituals; and, despite their name, such “immaterial” aspects of culture as oral history, oral literature, dance and music performance. Today, for a large part, they focus on cultural change in the context of globalization and on “development”.

4Early accounts of Borneo, often in a narrative form, provide some information on material culture, but only by the turn of the twentieth century did substantial works appear: synthetic accounts by explorers or colonial administrators, museum inventories, and compilations, most of which remain invaluable sources to this day. Concomitantly, shorter but more focused studies investigated the uses and meanings of things: pictorial and technical arts, costumes, ornaments, tattooing, swords, or musical instruments. The period between the World Wars saw a limited output of regionally important “ethnographic” books, as well a notable development, in Dutch and British scholarly and general public journals, of shorter pieces covering, with a narrower focus, a broader scope of material productions: e.g., masks, textiles, basketry, wood carving.

5While in-depth professional anthropological work started in Sarawak in the early 1950s with surveys commissioned by the British colonial service, these studies (by, e.g., Edmund Leach, Derek Freeman, Rodney Needham) only viewed material culture as the physical provision for otherwise important social or economic activity. This trend persisted till the close of the century in British and American scholarly studies, focused on gender, religion, shamanism, headhunting, land tenure, social control, health, language, development, and the environment, with few works devoted to material culture and art, handcrafts, decorative motifs, design, style, and art history, and fewer of which full-length books or academic productions. To this day, Ph.D. theses in the Social Sciences dealing, at least partly, with material culture in Borneo are scarce, and most of them quite recent (see King 2013, Sellato 2016). In Western museums, exhibitions devoted to Borneo, along the years, have been sporadic, with some revived interest in recent years, and scholars produced studies based on their collections.

6In Borneo, the Sarawak Museum produced one important book on material culture, as well as a number of thin booklets on various related subjects, and the Sabah Museum later followed suit, as well as the Brunei Museum. Through their periodic journals, these institutions have powerfully contributed to expanding our knowledge of northern Borneo’s cultures. Other publications were released by Malaysian official agencies and private publishers. In Indonesia, the Ministry of Education and Culture’s nation-wide programs in the 1980s and 1990s yielded a large number of titles on Kalimantan museums’ collections.

7Among popular topics of studies in Borneo’s cultures, the longhouse features prominently, although few of the works do discuss architecture and/or the longhouse as physical structure, while most mainly examined it as a social institution, a ritual structure, or a symbolic element of identity, or else as a target for the ethnic tourism industry. Woodcarving, especially in hardwood, holds a special status in material culture, due to primitive art dealers’ and collectors’ sustained interest in Borneo’s sculpture. Large pieces have long been regarded as art, and museums and art galleries produced coffee-table books on the subject, while isolated articles appeared in journals, and shorter studies focused on funerary monuments.

8With pottery and basketry, we leave the world of “primitive art” for that of “folk crafts.” Both crafts have seen a trickle of publications spanning a half century. Other, slightly less “popular,” categories must be mentioned: metal ware (including war swords; e.g., Heppell 2011) and metal working, megalithic monuments, tattoo, decorated human skulls, wooden “calendars”, baby carriers, bark cloth, and more. We may also include here works on music and dance, as well as on crucial, though exogenous, elements of the Bornean material culture: glass beads and ceramic jars.

9By far, however, the most popular research and publication topic in material culture studies in the last three decades has been textiles, and especially Iban textiles. Initiated by Haddon’s and Start’s (1936) seminal book, work on Iban woven fabrics picked up again around 1980, then went in full swing ten years later (see references in Heppell 2005), and continuing to this day (e.g., Amann 2013), albeit not always exempt of some contradictory consideration of the ambiguous relationship of motif, name, and meaning (below). On West Kalimantan “Ibanic” textiles, there is precious little work (Maxwell 1980, Drake 1991), but we should mention some on Sabah’s traditional weaving and dyeing, Brunei textiles, and East Kalimantan’s unusual ulap doyo textiles (see references in Sellato 2016).

10An honorary fellow at Monash University, Melbourne, Michael Heppell is no newcomer to Borneo (Heppell 1975), where he did research among Iban, Bidayuh, and Buket groups, or to the field of its material culture and, especially, textiles (see Heppell 1988, 1992, 1994, 2005, 2011, Heppell & Limbang 1988, Heppell et al. 2005, Vale & Heppell 2002). Heppell’s Seductive Warp Thread must be viewed in the framework of ongoing scholarly debates on the subject of Southeast Asian weaving history and, more particularly, of Borneo textiles.

11This book focuses on “Ibanic weaving”. The term “Ibanic” refers to a linguistic category (a sub-grouping of “Malayic”) including the languages spoken by the large Iban set of groups (about 800,000 souls) in Sarawak and a dozen minor ethnic groups, e.g., Kantu’, Seberuang, Mualang, Desa, in West Kalimantan (altogether, some 150,000; p. 8). Some may object, in principle, to the use of the phrase “the Ibanic” or “the Ibanic peoples” (p. 6) to refer to ethnic groups speaking Ibanic languages, in the same way that they would object to the use of “the Austronesians” as a catchall term for (pre-)historic peoples speaking Austronesian languages. Moreover, the word “Ibanic” is also found in the literature to strictly refer to the set of West Kalimantan ethnic groups, to the exclusion of the Iban, which makes its use quite equivocal.

12Based mainly on local oral traditions and genealogies, allowing for a historical reconstruction over four centuries, Heppell suggests that all Iban/ic peoples originated in the Ketapang area of southwest Kalimantan. There, they acquired iron tools and the smelting technology and switched from swamp rice to swidden rice farming. They left this region, at different times and by different routes, moving north to, and across, the Kapuas River. Later on, between the late 15th c. and the mid-16th c. (pp. 7-8, 16), one group, now known as Iban, began moving over into Sarawak, and progressively developed there, demographically and territorially, into a major ethno-cultural entity. Meanwhile, other groups stayed put in the Kapuas drainage, and eventually fell under one or another local “Malay” petty polities’ control, which hindered their expansion. Those became the so-called “Ibanic”.

13This history of migrations is of relevance to Heppell’s history of Iban/ic weaving techniques. There is evidence, he states, that some Iban/ic groups, well before the 14th c., developed weaving—which seems to have been introduced from the coast—as textiles certainly were involved in farming rituals, later to shift focus to warfare and headhunting rituals (p. 33-34).

14Heppell proposes a tentative “evolutionary account of the development of [Iban/ic] weaving techniques” (p. i; hence the book’s subtitle), extensively based on Iban oral literary and historical texts, in nine stages, presumably originally developing from plaiting techniques (p. 41): twining of bark cordage, for blankets and war jackets; use of cotton to make a slit tapestry weave (silak) with weft wrapping; introduction of the spinning wheel and a loom, to produce a plain cotton weave; development of sungkit, a discontinuous supplementary weft, to decorate plain cotton panels; discontinuous warp, to produce a dyed central section on a white panel; development of pilih, a floating weft method, to create decoration on woven jackets; development of ikat (tie-and-dye) technique, to produce pieces that are said to stand “at the pinnacle of Southeast Asian ikat weaving” (p. 68); development of mordanting, to ensure that the dyes fast; and, finally, needle embroidery (sulam) and beadwork techniques.

15“Each advance in weaving efficiency was accompanied by an artificial addition of complexity or difficulty to the new method,” Heppell stresses (p. 37). Moreover, contrasting with plaitwork, textiles hardly have any practical utility, apart from skirts, and are used almost only for ritual purposes and supernatural protection. Then, why would weavers systematically add difficulty to their techniques, and weave larger numbers of pieces than necessary? The book “examines the question of why weaving caught on to become so central in Ibanic life” (p. 37).

16This analysis seems to be two-fold. Heppell first sets out to demonstrate that Iban/ic textiles constitute a “very important memory bank” (p. 149), and that their iconography is rooted in “deeply held cosmological ideas and records of historical events” (p. 137). Here, he follows up on his earlier argument (Heppell 2005, Heppel et al. 2005), differing from Traude Gavin’s view that Iban textiles “were merely decorative and conveyed no meaning” (p. 150; see Gavin 1996, 2003; on the same issue, regarding plaitwork, see Sellato in press). Heppell’s argument is based on information made available to him by Enyan anak Usen (an experienced weaver, credited as a co-author of Iban Art), J. Derek Freeman (his 1940s field notes), and such Iban experts as Margaret Linggi, Empiang Jabu, and Vernon Kedit (see also Jabu 1991, Linggi 2001, Kedit 2013). Weaving, through time, came to play a most prominent role in rituals of the life cycle and the rice cycle alike, especially in relation to fertility, which itself was highlighted in warfare and headhunting. Powerful spirits captured on jackets and blankets would then assist and protect the household and its members in all circumstances.

17In the very competitive Iban society, weaving was the field in which women strived to achieve social prominence: Men had to prove their value in battle, and women in weaving (p. 100; see also Mashman 1992). “Weaving was institutionalised in the ideals of a complete woman and in the ranking system among women” (p. 114). Women had to be both proficient in the weaving techniques and knowledgeable with regard to the “memory bank”. Weaving complexity, not fundamental to a community’s or a family’s survival, was a plus, “a luxury” (p. 141), though a labor-costly one, in which women indulged in order to seduce their menfolk (hence the “seductive warp thread” in the book’s title). Drawing from studies in the fields of behavioral sciences and evolutionary anthropology, Heppell makes a case to link weaving merit to sexual selection: Successful Iban men wanted accomplished weavers as wives. This warrior-weaver match, Heppell asserts, ensured reproductive success and subsequent demographic and territorial expansion (p. 101).

18Unfortunately, governments’ banning of warfare and headhunting, mass destruction of ritual textiles by zealous Christian missionaries, a later marked switch from rice farming to cash crops, and girls being increasingly sent to boarding school in town and thus removed from a traditional weaving environment led to cumulative “disintegration of weaving” (p. 145) in most Iban/ic areas, to the disappearance of the more difficult techniques, to a general “process of amnesia” (p. 91) or loss of knowledge regarding the meaning of motifs, and to much confusion in modern composition of textile design.

19The book includes over 150 illustrations, combining black-and-white archive photographs, some of which by Derek Freeman in the 1940s, design sketches by Monica Freeman, line drawings of motifs, and color photos of textiles, some quite small in size; two appendixes, a bibliography, a glossary, and an index. Given the book’s large size, the layout in two columns offers a convenient reading, though it is locally faulty (e.g., text cut, p. 168; fig. 12 missing).

20Michael Heppell’s second (2015) volume, Communing with the Dark Side, focuses on masks. Contrasting with Iban/ic weaving, masks constitute a relatively new and underexplored field in Borneo studies. Borneo masks, at least certain striking masks, such as the hudo’ of the upper Mahakam area, often feature in coffee-table books covering Indonesian “arts and crafts” in a general way, or in museum or art gallery exhibition catalogues on Borneo. While masks somehow partook in the interest in Borneo’s monumental hardwood statuary among global primitive-art market circles, which too often linked them with “ancestors”, they prompted little attention among scholars, and works strictly devoted to them only comprise a handful of thin journal articles (with Rassers 1928–29 an exception) published between the two World Wars, one MA thesis focused on Sarawak (Gill 1966) and, in the following decades, another handful of articles and illustrated exhibition booklets (e.g., Kassim 1983, Revel-Macdonald 1978, Heppell 1992, Bantong 2001, Zahorka 2001; more in Sellato 2016).

21Heppel’s present book, therefore, is the first book-sized in-depth study ever on the subject, and its ambition is to deal with the whole island, despite the dearth of data. Indeed, given the island’s bulk and the large number of its ethno-cultural groups, the author warns, this book is not based on an altogether improbable thorough-going study of masquerade; rather, it aims at proposing the best possible account in light of the material available—collected in the field, contributed by other visitors, or gleaned in the literature—though, of course, he writes, “serious gaps” remain (p. vii).

22The only theoretical attempt to elucidate Borneo’s masquerades was made by W.H. Rassers, the then director of the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (pp. 21-22). Influenced by the French Année Sociologique school and lacking or disregarding field data on the contexts of Borneo’s masquerades, Rassers erroneously viewed them in the framework of Mauss’ theory of the gift. As it happened, the Leiden museum’s mask collection included examples of the island’s three great mask traditions, each having a quite distinctive context: the Kanayatn masks focus on headhunting; the Ngaju and Uut Danum, on death and decay; and the “Kayanic”, on life, agriculture, and fertility. In Borneo, Heppell stresses (p. 22), there is no evidence of a relationship between masks and ancestors (on this, see also p. 169).

23Three brief preliminary chapters follow: one (pp. 25-29) dealing with the natural milieu, farming practices, and the plant taxa used in mask making; another (pp. 31-40) summarizing the history of interaction of Borneo with various centers of Southeast Asian culture, as well as with China, and their plausible technical, cultural, and artistic influences on the island and its mask traditions; and a third (pp. 43-51) focusing on Bornean origin myths and eschatology, leading to the conclusion that “[m]asks […] enabled humans to commune with the spirit world […],” therefore “[m]asquerades provided a mechanism to cross the divide between the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial worlds” (p. 51), or to bridge “separations that are otherwise thought to cause illness or social dysfunction […]” (p. 22, quoting from Emigh 1999).

24The core of the book, the bulky Chapter 6 (“Masks & Masquerades”, pp. 53-167), reviews nine mask traditions, remarkable for their diversity, among Borneo’s ethno-cultural groups. Whenever possible, creation myths, cosmologies, and other traditional oral texts are marshalled to help clarify the meaning and function of masks and the context of masquerades. As hinted at above and described more in detail below, the overall picture that comes out is one of a broad diversity of forms, functions, meanings, and social and ritual contexts.

25“Austronesians” landing on Borneo some 4,000 years ago, Heppell states (p. 53), are unlikely to have brought with them a mask tradition, although he seems to conflate true masks worn in masquerades with all kinds of “painted, carved, beaded or woven” mask (or face) motifs, meant as apotropaic symbols and, sometimes, social status markers. I am not, however, totally convinced that investigations into face motifs, found everywhere, and into their functions truly are of relevance to explain the existence, practices, and functions of masquerades—the Aoheng, whose iconography is replete with face motifs, do not have a mask tradition.

26Among the nine mask traditions reviewed—Banjar, Kanayatn, Bidayuh, Ibanic, Barito, Kajang, Kayanic, Punan/Penan, and Sabah groups (Ibanic, Barito, and Kayanic are linguistic, not ethnic groupings; see my comment above)—the so-called “Kayanic” tradition, the best known of all, spreads over some forty pages, with “Barito” coming second with twenty-five pages, the rest being necessarily treated in a much more cursory way for lack of data. Some groups, like those of Sabah and, probably, the Punan/Penan and related hunter-gatherers, may never have made masks (p. 167). As for the Banjar tradition (centered in Banjarmasin), it displays a clear linkage to the wayang mask culture of Java, which spread to the court cultures of Borneo’s coastal kingdoms, to later diffuse to neighboring rural “Dayak” regions (p. 57).

27Among the Bidayuh (Land Dayak) groups of western Borneo, masquerades featuring frightening monstrous characters wearing costumes of palm fibers (p. 83) are performed during harvest festivals. Among “Ibanic” (Iban/ic, here including the Iban proper) in Sarawak and West Kalimantan, masks are merely used, if at all, to amuse an audience or scare young misbehaving children (p. 86), and are most generally absent from ritual activities. Among the Kajang set of groups in Sarawak, the Lahanan made disposable straw masks, used in harvest festivals, while the Kejaman used theirs, made from calabashes, in mortuary rituals; the Melanau’s wooden masks, with a “distinctly Javanese flavor”, were used to drive away sickness and malevolent spirits (pp. 119-120), while Kanowit masks served in training young men for warfare; altogether, therefore, “the Kajang had no core focus for their masquerades” (p. 122). As for the Kanayatn (Kendayan) of West Kalimantan, some sub-groups have large, “demonic” or animal masks featuring in a festival relating to headhunting and/or in annual farming rituals; maskers also participated in the local kingdom’s royal rites of passage (p. 63).

28The “Barito” mask traditions of Central Kalimantan (pp. 92-118) are concerned with mortuary rites. Large, extravagant theriomorphic masks are meant to be psychopomps, guides to accompany a dead person’s soul to its final abode, while others represent evil spirits (or “ghouls”, p. 113). These masks—Ngaju sababuka, Uut Danum bukung, Tumon luha—often discarded after use, form “a uniquely Bornean style of mask”, Heppell states (p. 100), though connections with Hindu and/or Chinese cultural themes may be established (pp. 113-114).

29The “Kayanic” tradition (pp. 123-167) is broken down into eight categories or “regional styles”, including Kayan proper, Bahau and Busang, Kenyah, Modang, and Berawan, with most of the eponymous groups being located in East Kalimantan and Sarawak, as well as being formally stratified societies, in which rituals differ with social status. These Kayan/ic peoples, among which masquerades’ core focus is on swidden farming and rice, have been called “the mask makers extraordinaire of Borneo” (p. 123). Masks often represent beneficent deities believed to ensure the fertility of the land and prosperity of the people, while others may be scary (and meant to frighten) or ridiculous (and meant to entertain). The Kayan/ic’s hudo’ and uyat masks are particularly striking: Some combine a hornbill bird’s beak and a dragon’s fangs, complete with a costume of shredded banana leaves and a helmet with long feathers; others represent a wild boar’s head and drawn-out snout; or else a beautiful, serene godly face surrounded by tendrils and spirals.

30Beyond the broad cultural diversity of Borneo’s ethnic groups, which reflects on their spiritual outlook, religious focuses, and ritual practices and, therefore, on their having or not a mask tradition and on the ways in which they use masks, it may be stated that masquerades, when they exist, generally straddle the human and spiritual spheres and allow people to engage with the unpredictable non-human worlds to try and ensure society’s well-being and prosperity. Moreover, among Borneans, as everywhere, a masquerade always is a collective festive event—“the overriding impression of anyone seeing the masks in action was the enormous enjoyment that people got out of them” (p. 176)—to tighten the social fabric.

31A brief Epilogue (pp. 179-183) on the tourist trade, the (thriving) fake market, and the (apparently rather bleak) future of masquerades is followed by a glossary, bibliography, and index. As with The Seductive Warp Thread, a wealth of over 200 illustrations: archive documents in black-and-white, and color photos of masks and field situations, including a number of double spread plates of masks. As with The Seductive Warp Thread, again, the occasionally faulty layout, e.g., a caption mix-up with Fig. 104 (p. 104) and Fig. 109 (p. 101).

  • 1 Over sixty titles on Borneo are available, including fifteen in the Monograph Series and eight in t (...)

32Documenting Borneo’s rapidly disappearing material cultures has now become a matter of the utmost urgency. These two volumes of the Borneo Research Council’s new Material Culture Series are a most welcome addition to the Council’s already broad range of publications.1 For his stimulating and thought-provoking work and his remarkable iconography, Michael Heppell deserves high praise. No doubt his innovative approach triggers captivating debates. One may only wish to see in print more such quality books as the two volumes under review.

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1 Over sixty titles on Borneo are available, including fifteen in the Monograph Series and eight in the Proceedings Series. See; the Council’s periodical, the Borneo Research Bulletin, is now in its 46th year (Vol. 45, 2014, over 400 pages); see index:

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Bernard Sellato, « Recent Material Culture Studies on Borneo », Moussons, 27 | 2016, 163-172.

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Bernard Sellato, « Recent Material Culture Studies on Borneo », Moussons [En ligne], 27 | 2016, mis en ligne le 23 mai 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Bernard Sellato

Chercheur au CNRS en anthropologie, membre du Centre Asie du Sud-Est (CASE).

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