Malaysians and Indonesians know “ikat” as a cloth with a pattern made by resist-dyeing the threads – the warp, the weft, or both – before weaving.
Many believe that ikat (which also describes the process, similar to tie-dyeing) originated here. But the technique is nearly universal and has been found for hundreds of years in Central and South America, the countries along the Silk Road, India, Japan and other South-East Asian countries.
In fact, in 2009, ikat was one of the traditional Li textile techniques on China’s Hainan island which were inscribed on Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
Indonesia also tried, unsuccessfully, in 2013 to nominate ikat from its Sumba island for the United Nations cultural heritage organisation’s List. Should Malaysia do the same?
“Malaysian ikat has a long history and exquisite craft,” says Deng Jinghua, a researcher at the Hainan Provincial Mass Art Centre in Haikou City on the island. “It should apply for listing.”
“We will ask the Department of National Heritage and will apply for nomination for Unesco inscription for Malaysian ikat soon,” says Faridah Salehan, deputy directorof the design division at the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia). “That would include both kain limar in Kelantan and Terengganu, and pua kumbu in Sarawak.”
Heritage Commissioner Dr Zainah Ibrahim confirms that ikat is on the list of items that will be nominated for ICH in future. “We will need full research and documentation before we send it to Unesco,” she explains.
First, it will have to be registered as a National Heritage.
Gathering and documenting the information for this can take five to six years per item, she points out. “Priority will be given to items which already have full documentation. The items will be nominated to Unesco in stages.”
In Sarawak, Kraftangan Malaysia had awarded Bangi anak Embol the Master Craftsman title from 2007 through 2012 for her pua kumbu, the Iban ceremonial cloth woven using the ikat technique. “Including her name in the nomination would help,” suggests Faridah.
Bangi and her late mother, Karama anak Dampa, were joint winners of the Unesco Crafts Prize for ikat in 1998 and their pieces are at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, notes Edric Ong, founder of the World Eco-Fibre and Textile (WEFT) Network, who has helped to revive the weaving of pua kumbu.
In the peninsula, kain limar had been woven using the ikat technique for royalty as far back as the 17th century, but production died out after World War II, according to Amira Salleh, junior curator at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
“A thing really ceases to exist when it has stopped being spoken or thought about,” she says. “This is why it is important to have a dying traditional practice inscribed into the Unesco list. It gets on the map. It gets coverage. It gets introduced to those who have not heard about it.”
At the Gerai Orang Asal NGO that provides a sales outlet for traditional crafts, coordinator and craft researcher Reita Faida Rahim stresses that heritage recognition must begin at the community level. “A Unesco heritage listing means nothing if the community that once produced and consumed it does not value it anymore,” she says.
And Ong warns that such a listing would be meaningless “if nothing is done on the ground. We must have an action plan on what we are doing and/or propose to do to ensure that this heritage practice continues through both government action and community/private action.”
If Malaysia is applying for Unesco listing, we could join forces with Indonesia, which plans to try again.
“Why not apply together, on a multinational submission?” asks Roseri Rosdy Putri, deputy director for national and world heritage at Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “Indonesia and Malaysia are actually of one root.”
Certainly, Sarawak’s pua kumbu should be part of the nomination.
There are 150 pua weavers registered with Kraftangan, says Faridah. The corporation organises demonstrations of pua kumbu weaving within Malaysia and abroad, and offers short-term training, technical help, a design laboratory, workshops, and workspace.
At Universiti Malaya, Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom also hopes for Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage listing for pua kumbu. It’s the only type of ikat based on dreams, notes the senior lecturer with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
“Every piece has a name and a story, which is significant to the Iban community and lifestyle,” she explains. “Pua kumbu stores all the stories of their cosmology.”
Every Iban family has its own intellectual property rights, with designs based on the dreams of their ancestors, she stresses. With a High Impact Research Grant from the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, the academic is publishing articles about pua kumbu, supervising PhD students researching the field, and organising an exhibition.
She is also setting up an online indigenous knowledge database for pua kumbu which will include mapping.
“Once it is ready, people can join and we will help access the name and story of their pieces and the name of the weaver,” she promises.