Woven crafts and contrasts from the rain forests of Borneo

Woven crafts and contrasts from
the rain forests of Borneo
Hanne Christensen, PhD
Moesgaard Museum, The Ethnographic Collections
This publication is in conjunction with the special exhibition presented at Moesgaard Museum
at the yearly Willow Festival arranged by the Danish Willow Association from 21 to 22 August
2010. The exhibition, and hence also this publication, is focussed on the contrasts found in
woven crafts made by the indigenous peoples living in the rain forests of Borneo.
The exhibition was created by Hanne Christensen in collaboration with the Danish Willow
Association. After the opening at Moesgaard Museum, the exhibition was shown until midJanuary, 2011, at the premises of MarcoPolo Travel located in the centre of Aarhus.
Afterwards, all the beautiful woven crafts went back to the magazines of Moesgaard Museum,
but through this publication it is the intention that the exhibition may live on.
The exhibition is also a part of the project:
“Cultural treasures from the rain forest – preservation and communication”
The objective of this project is to contribute to the preservation and communication of the
cultural diversity of the world through:
* Preservation of a unique and comprehensive collection of handicraft from the indigenous
peoples in the rain forests of Borneo;
* Present and communicate the culture of the Bornean indigenous rain forest peoples and their
unique handicraft to people all over the world through the development of a detailed database
comprising all information and photos of the entire collection. The database will be made
accessible to everyone through the Internet on the homepage of Moesgaard Museum;
* Contribute to research on the culture of arts and crafts originating from peoples living in rain
forests through the database as well as publications;
* Create inspiration and recognition; the indigenous peoples in Borneo, many of whom today
have access to internet, will themselves be able to search the database and obtain recognition,
encouragement and inspiration to continue production and to further develop their exceptional
handicraft. Just like crafts people from all over the world may get ideas and inspiration for their
work from the database.
Life in the diverse and unpredictable tropical rain forest is at all levels permeated by an
abundance of contrasts: The contrast between the wild and untamed nature and the cultivated
small fields and gardens amidst the jungle, between the secure surroundings in the village and
the more doubtful relations with neighbouring tribes and other strangers, the different gender
roles of women and men, life and death, droughts opposing heavy rains and floods, old
traditions and modern development, and the eternal balances and contrasts of ancestors and
spiritual worlds versus the human world. All of this is reflected in peoples’ culture and lifestyle
and hence also in their woven arts and crafts.
Borneo is the third largest island on the planet and located on the equator. Its impressive rain
forests are known to be among the oldest and most diverse in this world. Here, many different
plants may be used for weaving. From beautiful filigree ferns to large robust lianas, aromatic
stems of wild gingers, different species of climbing rattans and many other curious plants with
strange names only known to very few outsiders.
Map of Southeast Asia with and detailed map of Borneo.
Human life in the rain forest without modern amenities puts high demands on creativity.
During many generations, a never ending array of designs have been developed for woven
baskets, hats, mats, backpacks, fish traps, personal adornments and tools all fulfilling by and
large every thinkable need. In the Bornean rain forests, the weaving traditions of the indigenous
peoples have been refined during millennia to outstanding manifestations of the human life in
the contrast-laden world of the rain forests. Lately, globalisation, modern development and
visits from foreign places have added new contrasts to the craftsmanship so rich in traditions.
Nanga Sumpa seen from a nearby hilltop.
Many of the indigenous communities in Borneo are located way out in the rain forest. In
Borneo, it is common to live in longhouses where everyone in the community lives under the
same roof in one long house. Many of the objects described in this article originate from the
small Iban longhouse community, Nanga Sumpa. Here some 150 people live under one roof.
Nanga Sumpa in 1992. Nobody dare to go underneath the longhouse – the spirits live there!
The traditional longhouse is built on tall stilts. This secures proper ventilation in the hot and
humid climate. Also, the floor is high above all sorts of potentially poisonous snakes and
creepy-crawly creatures! Furthermore, in the old days of headhunting, this design served a far
more important function – The longhouse acted like a fortress! When everybody lives under the
same roof and high above the ground, they are far more difficult to attack.
Along the entire length of the
longhouse runs an indoor as
well as an outdoor veranda.
The indoor veranda, ruai,
serves as a communal room
for everybody and much of
the social life of the
community takes place here.
The private areas of each
household with fireplace and
sleeping area are located
behind the ruai . Every family
is responsible for the maintenance of the area on the ruai
next to their private rooms.
The rice cult in Borneo
The most significant crop for most of the indigenous cultures in the rain forest of Borneo is
upland rice. It is farmed in a shifting cultivation cycle. Each year the farmer cuts and burns a
small plot in the forest. After just one harvest the land must be fallowed in 5 – 15 years before
Sudan is harvesting upland rice – panicle for panicle– down in her harvest basket.
the area can be cut again for another round of cultivation of upland rice. Upland rice provides
less yield than wet rice, but unlike wet rice it requires less labour and no irrigation.
The rice cult in Borneo has through more than a 1000 years developed into a highly
sophisticated religion centralised around the yearly cycle of rice cultivation. Rice is assumed to
possess a spirit and it is of utmost importance to satisfy the rice spirits through numerous
complicated rituals, offerings and festivals. The time of selecting a new field, sowing and
harvesting is very crucial. Many omens are taken from specific birds and other animals as they
pass on important messages from the rice spirits and the ancestors to the humans.
In the photo above, Sudan from Nanga Sumpa is harvesting her rice, panicle by panicle, with a
small hand-held harvesting tool. When her harvest basket, carried around the waist, is full, she
pours the rice into one of the large harvest baskets standing by the edge of the field. All farm
work in Nanga Sumpa is carried out without agricultural machinery due to the difficult terrain
in the interior of Borneo. However, people have through many generations been selecting and
breeding their rice varieties and today they farm an incredible number of rice varieties. In
Nanga Sumpa alone, more than 100 different named varieties are farmed.
The woven handicraft used in the rice farming reflects the major significance of the rice in the
traditional religion. Hence the baskets and other woven handicraft used for the farming of rice
are often very beautiful as they are made with great care and dedication.
Contrast in the use of different plants and materials
The tropical rain forest is an abundant supplier of numerous plant species whose fibre may be
processed and woven into the most incredible objects. Plants with fibres that possess strength,
flexibility, durability as well as beauty can be harvested from the rain forest and these fibres
may be worked into a wide range of simple and complex handicrafts. In Borneo the indigenous
people know of several hundreds different fibre plants that they use in their woven handicraft.
Some of the most outstanding fibres known are extracted from the rattan palms.
A spiny rattan palm is climbing up into the canopy.
More than 200 different species of rattan palms are found in the rain forests of Borneo. The
rattans belong to a specific group of climbing palms with no proper trunk. They climb up into
the canopy like lianas. They can grow to a length of more than 100 metres and their flexible
stems are equipped with the most horrible thorns enabling them to hang onto the branches as
they climb the canopy. As a total contrast to their spiny or thorny exterior, the inner part
consists of a smooth, flexible, and strong fibre. Great skill is needed to handle these thorny
rattans, to separate them, and to extract the fine fibre. Rattan fibres are considered second to
none for basket weaving. The finely split fibres are used for the body of the basket and the
sowings on the basket. Halved and whole fibres are used for edges, supporters, and bottoms. As
the fibres of different species of rattans vary in both properties and quality, it is common to use
the fibres from five to six different species of rattan for a single basket.
Rattan-palm in the canopy.
The rattan-palm is split and the smooth fibre becomes visible.
In the body weave of baskets no. 1 and 2, several different kinds of rattan fibres are used each
having a different natural colour. Combining the fibres in different ways thus creates a pattern.
No. 1
No. 2
In the old days only natural dyes extracted from plants in the surrounding rain forest were
available to dye the fibres. Black was (and is) still the most widespread colour to apply on the
fibres for creating patterns (3 and 4). The most widespread method of dyeing rattan fibres black
is through a process where the fibres are being buried in wet iron-containing clay for several
weeks together with leaves from the rambutan tree. The red colour may be obtained from
specific species of rattan palms. The scales of their seeds contain a red dyestuff, dragons blood,
which is one of the few natural dyes that dyes rattan fibres permanently red. Baskets with red
coloured fibres from dragons blood (5) are uncommon today, as the specific rattan species have
become rare and because it is a major piece of work to dye rattan fibres with dragons blood.
No. 3
No. 4
No. 5
There are other ways to obtain coloured fibres. A striking colour contrast between the rim and
the body of a basket (6) may be created by weaving the basket in two rounds. First, the body of
the basket is woven and left above the fireplace for smoking until it has achieved the desired
chocolate colour. Then the rim is woven and attached with very light-coloured fibres.
No. 7
With the fibres from bamboo, it is possible to have every thinkable colour, as bamboo fibres in
contrast to other natural fibres may be painted with ordinary paint. The outer skin on the bamboo
culm is painted before being stripped and used for weaving. However, this fibre is not as durable
as rattan fibres. In this elegant basket (7), the outer layer is woven from painted bamboo fibre.
To add strength to the basket, it is double woven. The inner part is woven from fibres of the wild
ginger, Hornstedtia reticulata. The rim is woven from two different species of rattan fibres.
No. 8
Besides fibres, other materials may be used in
the woven handicraft. The hard seeds from the
tall grass, Job’s tears, are popular in use for
handicraft all over the tropics. The shiny seeds
comes in many varieties of different colours
and are used not only for necklaces but also in
woven objects such as belts and bags. In this
little bag (8), the seeds are further combined
with colourful plastic beads providing a
delicate effect.
Bead embroidery in woven handicraft
combines the two forms of art in a fine
way and creates a beautiful contrast in
the final artwork. Many indigenous
groups in the highlands have strong
traditions of applying bead embroideries
onto their wide sunhats (9), that they use
when conducting fieldwork.
No. 9
The enchanting Licuala-palms with their graceful leaves are common in the rain forests of
Borneo. Their leaves provide a very strong fibre suitable for many different kinds of woven
handicraft, one example is the large sun hats (9). The young leaves are harvested before they
open up and dried before they are used for handicraft.
A mat is more than just a mat
Traditionally there is almost no furniture in a longhouse. People sit on a mat on the floor and
everyone use specific mats as dining tables, sleeping mats, sitting mats, offering mats, etc.
There may be great differences between simple mats for everyday use and fine mats used for
special occasions.
The simple mats for daily use (10) are often woven by using the fresh green leaves from the
Pandanus plant. These mats are made in a short time and are coarse with no patterns. But mats
No. 10
made by Pandanus fibres do not last for long. More durable and finer mats may be woven from
different kinds of rush (11). As these fibres are stronger and more durable, people invest more
work in these mats, and natural dyed rush fibres (11) are often interwoven to create patterns.
No. 11
No. 12
Some of the strongest mats are made from strips of inner bark from the large Artocarpus
elasticus tree interwoven with rattan fibres (12). A large mat may easily measure more than 3
by 6 metres. The brown fibres are Artocarpus fibre and the crème-coloured and black fibre are
rattan fibres of which some are naturally coloured and some are dyed black with rambutan
leaves. These mats may last for many years. The bemban mats (13) are among the most
admirable of all mats. They are both durable and comfortable to sit on and the fine fibres from
the bemban plant may be woven in the most fantastic and delicate relief patterns. The patterns
No. 13
are not immediately seen, but when the light hits the mat in a low angle, the fine pattern stands
out in the contrasts between light and shadow. Small mats of rattan and bemban (13) are used
in offering ceremonies.
There are other mats with specfic functions.
A simple pandanus-mat is used by the
Kelabit people as a mat on which the meat
is cut. As the mat gets bloody and dirty, it
always hangs on the outer wall of the longhouse when not in use. In the photo, Tallona
is cutting up a wild boar on the meat-mat.
At the meals in a Kelabit longhouse, the
dining-table-mat is taken down from the
wall and placed on the floor next to the
fireplace where the members of the household gather for eating. When the mat becomes dirty, it is just thrown out and a new
dining-table-mat is woven to replace it. Consequently this mat is always just a simple mat.
The exquisite mats
It is with the Penan people that one finds many of the masters when it comes to mat making.
From the most durable, flexible and beautiful rattan fibres the most stunning mats with an
incredible richness of patterns are woven. They are mainly used as sleeping mats. Four of these
mats placed on top of each other constitute a comfortable bed to sleep on. No 14, is such a mat.
No. 14
Detail of sleeping mat no. 14.
Detail of another Penan sleeping mat.
Contrast in Use:
Daily Life – Festivity – and Religious Occasions
There is often a distinct difference between the baskets and other woven objects used in daily
life or for special occasions. Daily used objects are typically more simply made and practically
designed towards the needs they should meet. For festivities, people bring out their finest
baskets. Just like everywhere else in the world, people try to impress each other by flashing
their most spectacular baskets! Woven objects used at religious ceremonies and rituals are often
characterised by being carefully made according to specific prescriptions in order to satisfy the
spirits and the ancestors.
Daily life:
No. 15
Small loosely woven baskets, raga kerising, (15) are intended for keeping the catch of small fish,
frogs, snails, prawns etc. The basket is worn around the waist and is indispensable when living
close to rivers. In the photo, Bidang is collecting tekuyung riversnails in her raga kerising.
No. 16
No. 17
No. 16 is a simple storage basket that meets many daily needs in the household. No. 17 is a
casually woven carrier basket for daily use when people walk to their small rice fields in the
jungle or when they collect wild fruits, vegetables or other produce in the forest.
Alam in the jungle with a woven backpack
for collecting wild fruits, nuts and vegetables.
The fatty illipe nuts are sorted in woven
baskets and trays before they are dried.
No. 18
The sitting mat, tikar burit, (18) is used at festive occasions. A string is fastened at the pointed
part of the small mat, and is tied around the waist. In this way the carrier of the mat will always
have a dry and clean chair available when going for a party! In the old photo two young men
with tikar burit tied around their waists are engaged in a friendly wrestling match at a festival.
No. 19
No. 20
Many of the woven hats are used at festive or at ceremonious occasions. No. 19 is used by the
Iban people at festive occasions where people take turns dancing for each other. The dancer
wears the hat and with great amusement he or she will place it on the head of another person,
who must then continue the dance. No. 20 is a typical hat used by the highland peoples.
Here, some Kelabit men are wearing their finest dress including their medals from 2nd World
War, newly polished brass earrings, necklaces of antique glass beads, suits and their “high hat”.
Religious occasions:
No. 21
No. 22
No. 21 is a small ritual basket from the western part of Borneo. The umbilical cord of the
newborn baby, its symbolic twin, was kept here. No. 22 is a special basket, gadai, from the
Iban people meant for offerings. The offering baskets of the Iban often have outgrowths and
other peculiar forms. These symbolise that the basket is used for religious purposes.
Sowing baskets are often very intricate and elegantly
woven as the seed corn of the most significant crop, rice,
is carried to the field in them (23). The rice spirits could
get offended and punish the family with a bad harvest if
the rice seeds were not treated with utmost respect. Today,
when people have become Christians, the sowing baskets
tend to be more simply made, as people no longer have to
follow the strict prescriptions of the old religion.
No. 23
No. 24
- Ringka’ pala – til hoveder!
Ringka’ pala with human skulls and basket for offerings.
In the old days the indigenous peoples of Borneo were notorious headhunters. The human
skulls testified on men’s courage and strength and endowed everybody in the longhouse with
fertility and spiritual power. In the Iban longhouse, the human skulls were traditionally
suspended from the ceiling in the ruai. The skulls were kept in woven nets, Ringka’ pala (24).
No. 25
The Bidayuh people’s red basket (25) was formerly used in the old religion for specific rituals.
Today the majority of the Bidayuh are Catholic, but the red basket is still important for their
religious life. When they go to church, the psalm book and the Bible are kept in the red basket.
Contrasts between
different types of objects
Through many generations the people in the rain forest have developed a wide range of
countless woven objects serving all imaginable purposes. As there are no local supermarkets
around where to buy the objects, people had to invent and make what they need themselves!
No. 26
No. 27
This delicate small harvest basket has a support (26) to secure that it doesn’t topple, which is
important if it contains newly harvest rice. The woven ball (27) is for the popular game: Bala
sepak. The game resembles volleyball, but one is also allowed to use the feet in this game.
Formerly, almost every woman chewed betel
nuts, and it was customary to have a specific
basket for all the betel chewing equipment. No.
28 is a lidded betel basket. Belonging to the betel
chewing is lime, betel leaves, and special pliers.
All of this is kept in the betel basket that often
has a specific design. In the photo on page 1 the
woman from the Bukit people is presenting her
betel basket and she holds a folded betel leaf
with lime applied on it – ready for being chewed
together with mashed betel nut.
No. 28
No. 29
Above is a peek into a huge antique Chinese ceramic jar, where the rice wine is fermenting.
When it is ready for drinking, the ladle is lowered into the basket in the jar and the wine is
tapped from there. The basket (29), bubu tuak, serves as a sieve and secures that no parts of rice
or other impurities are ladled up.
No. 30
The traditional woven backpack (30) is used to carry heavy burdens. People often walk for
several hours, so it is important that these backpacks are strong and comfortable to wear. In the
photo a Kelabit man is on his way home from a hunting trip with a wild boar in the backpack.
No. 31
No. 32
No. 31 is made with an unusual weave. It is worn on the back and is carried with the woven
headband. No. 32 is a specific basket, anad, for storing cooked rice. Kelabit people are very
fond of mashed, cooked rice wrapped in leaves in pack-size, nuba layu. Generally, many packs
are made at a time, which keep for several days. These packs of mashed rice are kept in the
anad-basket, which hangs under the ceiling where it is out of reach of mice etc.
No. 33
No. 34
The Kelabit people uses specific overnight baskets for their hens with chickens (33) to keep
them out of reach of predators. These baskets are hung from the ceiling beneath the longhouse
or placed on a shelf as in the photo above. The small hen (34) is made by plastic straws!
No. 35
The child-carrying-basket for babies and small children (35) is used by many indigenous
peoples in Borneo. The small babies are carried on the stomach. As they grow bigger, they are
carried in the basket on the back. In this photo, Sinne Tallona, is comforting her young son.
It has always been customary for the indigenous peoples in Borneo, both men and women, to
wear traditional bracelets made from natural fibres. In the exhibition, a wide selection of
various types of bracelets was shown from different ethnic groups. The bracelets were hung for
display on a coiled rattan fibre (36) and formed a beautiful kaleidoscope demonstrating the
diversity of patterns and colours in woven bracelets.
No. 36
Today, only few of the tribes still prefer to wear so many bracelets around their wrists. One of
these is the Penan people. In the photo, the wrist of a Penan man is displaying the typical
designs of the Penan bracelets.
Fish constitute a significant part of the diet in the rain
forest. Most longhouses are built near rivers and the use
of fish traps is therefore an important part of daily life.
Often the fish trap is set in the river or stream in the
morning before people go to the forest or field. On the
way home in the afternoon, the fish trap is emptied and
as a rule - dinner is secured! There is great variation
among the different designs of fish traps, most of them
are rather simple, but one type of fish trap from the
Bidayuh people (37) has a more complicated design. It is
woven with beautiful brownish-black fern fibres
yielding an elegant contrast to the lighter bamboo fibres.
No. 37
The contrast between different tribes’ traditional basketry
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and home to many groups of indigenous peoples
each of which has its own language and culture. Many of these tribes count only a few
thousand members. Common for all of them are their refined traditions for craftsmanship and
every tribe has developed their own characteristic designs of woven products. Shapes, patterns,
and techniques vary, in many cases, from tribe to tribe. Hence it is often possible to determine
which tribe a person belongs to simply by looking at his or her woven hat, backpack, or basket.
No. 38
No. 39
No. 38: This fine old basket with different and intricate patterns on each of its four sides is
typical for the Ngaju people who live in the Indonesian part of Borneo. Their baskets often
have a characteristic slanting edge.
No. 39: The Iban people constitute the largest indigenous group in Borneo and counts almost ½
million people. They inhabit large areas, mainly in the Malaysian part of Borneo, but they have
retained many common features in their basket traditions. This basket, sintung, with its
significant edge, is characteristic of Iban people all over Borneo.
No. 40
No. 41
No. 42
No. 40: The Penan people are among the very few nomadic peoples in Borneo. Traditionally,
they weave only few types of baskets, since a nomadic lifestyle does not require many kinds of
baskets. This basket with this pattern is probably the most classic Penan basket.
No. 41: This design is typical for the Lun Bawang people who live in the highlands. They only
number about 20.000 and practise their own unique language and traditions.
No. 42: The traditional basketry of the Bidayuh people is easily recognised, as they are the only
ones who weave with this technique.
The universal contrast:
Men – Women
Weaving work is traditionally gender-divided among most tribes in Borneo. The men are
mainly responsible for weaving large backpack baskets and fish traps. Among the Iban people,
the old traditions prescribed the women to weave the body of the basket and the men the edge.
In this way, men and women sealed their partnership and acted according to their adat, the traditional tribal legislation. It could happen, though, that the man was sloppy with his part of the
work leaving the woman dissatisfied. If so, she simply undid his work and made it over again
to meet her quality demands. This was accepted as long as it wasn’t performed too openly!
There are also some differences in the kinds of baskets used by men and women. With the
Kelabit people, it is clearly expressed in the large woven backpacks. These are important in
daily life. As the Kelabit people lives in the highlands, the rivers are mainly too small to be
navigable by boat. So everything has to be carried in these backpacks - often over long
distances. Hence the Kelabit people have a personal relationship with their backpacks. Great
No. 43
No. 44
care is invested in making them strong and durable. Men and women use different designs of
backpacks. The women’s design (44) is more elegant and finely woven than the men’s design
(43) and considered feminine in contrast to the larger, rougher, and masculine male backpacks.
Contrasts in time: Old and new
There are significant differences between new and old baskets. Old and used baskets have
sometimes acquired a fabulous patina and shine in their fibres that new baskets never have. It is
only time and use that can add these qualities to a basket. Also, in the old days, the baskets
were often made with much greater carefulness, as basket craftsmanship then had greater status
No. 45
No. 46
in indigenous societies. For a woman and her family, it meant status and recognition in the old
days, if she was a good basket weaver. It also increased her value significantly in the marriage
market. Hence, her personal purse, kandi, was an elegantly woven bag discretely advertising
her skills. Today, the weaving craftsmanship does not possess the same status anymore, and the
handbags have become much simpler. This is clearly seen when comparing the new kandi (45)
to the old kandi (46), where the latter of two in every way shows a more complicated and
detailed design with double body weave and very finely stripped fibres. Some old baskets have
No. 47
No. 48
acquired an outstanding patina with such beautiful shine which only comes after years of use
combined with good craftsmanship and the owner taking good care of them. Sowing baskets
for rice is an example of such baskets woven with great care in order to please the rice
spirits, and are well looked after. The old sowing basket from Nanga Sumpa (47) is a unique
example of this. Even though the new sowing basket from Nanga Sumpa (48) is also a
beautiful basket and a fine piece of crafts work, it lacks the beautiful patina.
No. 49
No. 50
Two conically shaped woven backpacks from the Bidayuh people, a very new unused one (49)
and a well used (50). The new one is stiff and creaks, whereas the used is more crumpled and
soft and seems a bit shabby. But both baskets are fascinating and beautiful in their own ways.
No. 51
No. 52
No. 53
Two new (51 & 52) and a well used Penan basket (53). All three baskets are beautiful and are
made by skilled weavers. The patterns are fabulous and fit all around the basket. But the old
basket has a beautiful patina, which would take years of use for the new baskets to acquire.
Modern times bring new impulses to traditional woven crafts
Today, many of the indigenous people in Borneo move to town and live a modern life, taking
the bus or drive their car to work in the morning and return to their flat or house in the evening.
The woven craft traditions have fortunately survived this and are practised in the towns as well.
Life in the town does not demand sowing baskets, fish traps, hunting backpacks, and woven
chicken cages. On the other hand, a good shopping basket is needed, a vase for the plastic
flowers, pencil cages for the children’s school items, and purses for money and credit cards.
When living in town, the rain forest and the high quality fibres found there are too far away, so
new kinds of weaving materials have been brought into play. Plastic strips originally intended
for wrapping package have become very popular to use for basketry and may today be bought
in every town and village. The plastic strips come in all thinkable bright colours and are
incredibly strong and very suitable for weaving baskets.
No. 54
No. 55
Small decorative storage baskets are popular in town. This little storage basket (54) is woven
from bamboo and fern fibres. These plants grow as weeds in non-cultivated areas in the towns
and are easy to harvest. The design of this basket is obviously inspired by the small Vietnamese
and Chinese baskets exported all over the world in large quantities. The small vase woven from
painted bamboo fibres (55) is ideal for keeping the popular plastic flowers that people in towns
love to decorate their homes with.
No. 56
No. 57
The purse is an important item when living in town. No. 56 is a double woven purse with zip.
The outer part is woven from painted bamboo fibres in a traditional pattern and the inner part is
woven from wild ginger fibres. This purse is very tight and suitable for money and other
private items. No. 57 is also a small purse/handbag with zip, woven with an unusual technique.
No. 58
No. 59
The women’s handbags are inspired by modern life in the towns and totally new designs are
created (58). The modern shopping basket with a handle is completely hopeless in the life in a
rain forest, but ideal and practical in the towns (59). When they are woven from plastic strips,
they are also very strong and durable. The many possible colour combinations of every bright
colour in the rainbow increase the demands – This is a basket meeting everyone’s taste!
But it is not only in the towns that baskets
made from colourful plastic strips may be
seen. Far out in the rain forest, this Kelabit
man went hunting with his gun and his dogs.
“My mother made this hunting backpack for
me” he told with a smile, when his
marvellous, almost luminescent pink woven
hunting backpack was admired. Even though
the plastic strips must be bought for money in
the town in contrast to the natural fibres that
people can harvest for free in the rain forest,
the colourful plastic strips have become quite
popular in the rain forest – and what a contrast
to find in the interior of the rain forest!
The contrast between objects woven for own use
and objects woven for sale to tourists
Along with modern development, an increased contact with the outside world has followed.
Today, many of the most skilled indigenous basket weavers in the rain forest are now aware of
the marketing value of their products, and they do not exclusively weave for own use.
However, they still tend to weave traditional products with fixed designs, shapes and sizes. But
these types of products are not always suitable for the western world tourist. Hence the
indigenous basket weavers have adapted some of their products without compromising
traditions – They weave miniature versions, that only take up little space in the suitcase and
meet the western world’s demands for being a utility item.
No. 60
No. 61
The large traditional Iban harvest basket, lanji, (60) is used to carry home the harvested rice
panicles. A fine lanji holds more than 60 kg of rice and demands much skill to weave. Fibres of
up to six different species of rattans are often used to make a good lanji. The impressive and
beautiful lanji is unfortunately far too big to bring home in the aircraft. A miniature lanji (61)
was given by Sudan from Nanga Sumpa to Hanne Christensen. Sudan thought that a lanji in
this size would be perfect as a wastepaper bin and hence attractive for tourists to purchase.
No. 62
No. 63
The large winnowing tray, chapan, (62) is indispensable to separate the rice grains from the
husk. It is an elegant type of tray, traditionally woven by the Iban people from the fibres of a
wild ginger, senggang, that has beautiful golden fibres. However, because of its large size, it is
hopeless as a tourist product. But a miniature version of the chapan (63) is perfect as a breador fruit basket at any set table.
No. 64
No. 65
The traditional betel nut basket of the Rungus people, rinaga, (64) is a delicately small, lidded
basket. Many tourists buy it gladly, as this beautiful basket may serve many purposes in homes
all over the world. But the miniature version (65) has also become a great sales success to
tourists as a key ring.
The meeting between the Danish basket weavers
and the basket weavers from the rain forest
Hanne Christensen and Susanne Kampp have since 2005 arranged three guided tours, where a
group of 15 Danish people has travelled the long way from Denmark to Borneo. Their intention
was to visit indigenous longhouse communities in the rain forest and to be taught their basket
weaving techniques with the indigenous basket weavers themselves as teachers. It has been
incredible exciting and inspiring as well as a fascinating cultural meeting for both the
longhouse community and the visitors from Denmark. Such a meeting is characterised by many
contrasts! The Danish basket weavers experienced their craft from a new perspective and
learned breaking new ways to weave a basket. A selection of the baskets woven by the Danish
basket weavers (with extensive help from their Iban teachers) is shown in the exhibition.
It is not everyday that basket
weavers from so far away as
Denmark come to visit
Borneo, so it caused a bit of
a stir. Especially as they
came to learn the craft of
basket weaving directly
from the local basket
weavers. They were soon
approached by a local
journalist, who wanted an
interview. The result was a
great full-page article in the
local newspaper “Eastern
Indai and Hanne explain and demonstrate the diffe- Jenny from Nanga Sumpa is teaching
rent types of baskets used by the longhouse people. Betty from Denmark to weave a basket.
Cultural differences are being bridged when the Danish and the Iban basket weavers meet over
the craftwork. They don’t understand each other’s language, but communicate keenly and
concentrated with their hands through their common passion for woven craftwork.
Susanne enjoys the result after a full days of concentrated work – and a basket very different from
the ones she usually makes is beginning to take
A glimpse out at the longhouse veranda
reveals how a gift from one of the Danish
weavers – a willow basket – has been
included in the woven utensils of an Iban
household – contrast!
Everyone managed to weave their own baskets during the stay in Nanga Sumpa with the help
of their Iban teachers. The following persons kindly lend their baskets to the exhibition:
Freja Rind Broby Groth (66), Yen Broby Madsen (67), Thea Lauridsen (68, 69 and 70), Jette
Meinike (71) and Susanne Kampp (72, 73 and 74).
No. 66
No. 69
No. 67
No. 68
No. 70
No. 71
No. 72
No. 73
No. 74
The warmest thanks are extended to the following for economic support for this project:
The Augustinus Foundation
Miljøorgansationen Verdens Skove
MarcoPolo Travel
ØK’s non-profit Foundation
His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince Frederik’s Foundation
The Danish Willow Association
Merkur Banking company
Photo & text by Hanne Christensen. Thanks also to Gitte Kæraa, Anna Mackra, Patricia Nayoi,
Valerie Mashman, and Karsten Thomsen for useful discussions. Where nothing else is
mentioned, the woven objects from Borneo are collected and brought to Denmark by Hanne
Christensen. Since 1989, she has lived for more than four years in Borneo, including extended
periods in remote longhouse communities in the rain forest. Comments to this publication are
welcome and may be addressed to Hanne Christensens e-mail: [email protected]
Appendix 1:
Photographs from the exhibition
at Moesgaard Museum and MarcoPolo Travel:
At Moesgaard Museum
The exhibition was launched in the lecture hall at Moesgaard Museum at the yearly Willow
Festival, 21-22 of August 2010. It was estimated that some 1100 people visited the exhibition. A
guided tour/lecture about Borneo and its indigenous cultures, the exhibition, and the objects was
both days conducted by Hanne Christensen, and about 50 people participated in each guided
tour/ lecture.
At MarcoPolo Travel, Aarhus
The premises of the MarcoPolo Travel company are located in an old renovated factory hall with
large and spacious rooms, where lots of light flow in through large windows. The exhibition was
on display from the 1st of September 2010 to 10th of January 2011. An estimated 500 persons
visited the exhibition. During the entire period, the exhibition was presented on the homepage of
MarcoPolo Travel as well as on the homepage of the Danish Willow Association. Two
lectures/guided tours were conducted in October about Borneo and its indigenous cultures, the
exhibition, and the objects. Some 30 persons participated in each guided tour/ lecture.
The exhibition was beautifully presented in the bright and airy facilities at MarcoPolo Travel and
attracted many visitors.
Appendix 2:
List of items exhibited and presented in this publication
Below, the items presented in the publication is listed, each referred to with the number given in
the text. For each item, the year and the location of acquisition are given along with the name of
the ethnic group that it belongs to.
No. in
Batu Bungan
Lubok Antu
K. Gayu
Lubok Antu
Many groups
Many groups
Kelabit (Lun
Many groups
No. in
Year Ethnic
___ __
2002 Many groups
1995 Orang Ulu
Acquired from various localities
1995 Bidayuh
1995 Ngaju
1993 Iban
Long Iman 1991 Penan
1993 Kelabit (Lun
2002 Bidayuh
1993 Kelabit
1993 Kelabit
1998 Iban
1993 Iban
1993 Iban
1998 Iban
2006 Bidayuh
2009 Bidayuh
Long Iman 1991 Penan
Long Iman 1991 Penan
1993 Penan
2006 Bidayuh
2002 Iban
2005 Iban
2006 Iban/Bidayuh?
2005 Iban
2006 Bidayuh
1993 Iban
1998 Iban
1993 Iban
2002 Iban
2007 Rungus
2007 Rungus
Legend: KK: Kota Kinabalu; NS: Nanga Sumpa; PD: Pa Dalih.