The Godown arts centre in Kuala Lumpur is sharing a bit of rustic Borneo with the urban masses through its current exhibition Bakul: Everyday Baskets From Sabah, featuring 70 traditional baskets from across Malaysia’s second largest region.
These baskets are from the collection of Sabahan author, curator and collector Jennifer P. Linggi, as depicted in her illustrated book, A Journal Of North Borneo’s Traditional Baskets, with its first edition published in 2017.
During the course of her craft study, which she started almost two decades ago, she made many sketches of these traditional baskets. She visited different communities in Sabah, staying several days, sometimes a week, in each kampung.
“As it was unplanned and informal research, I had the freedom to draw whatever was of interest to me. I find that the only way to truly understand a subject is to spend time with the people who are most knowledgeable about it. In the case of baskets, this means the crafts people who make and use them,” says Linggi in a recent interview.
“Those I spoke to had amassed so much knowledge that written words cannot truly capture their understanding of their environment or the extent of the craft knowledge they have acquired. They too sometimes find it hard to explain how they know what they know. This may be due to the fact that much of their understanding have been handed down orally and have never been committed to paper,” she adds.
Apart from the obvious functional use of baskets in these communities, basket-making is seen as a display of their creativity, manifested in the colours, weaving details and patterns.
By drawing each basket – rather than taking a photo – Linggi describes how she was able to empathise with the weaver, and even imagined she could read their thoughts as they went through the process of making.
“I sense great pride when they are describing their creations, although they are often reluctant to take credit for their work. I enjoyed hearing the stories associated with the baskets, for example, a demonstration of superior skills in making a finely crafted Tadang (from Penampang) was apparently a way to a girl’s heart.
“After staying in a number of villages in different ethnic communities, I realised that the one common factor was the importance of community spirit. This was evident during joyful ceremonies, such as those to celebrate the birth of a child or a marriage, and sad occasions related to illness and death. This communal spirit was epitomised by the willingness of the villagers to come forward to engage in the exhausting work of planting padi or harvesting rattan for basket-making,” says Linggi.
Building a bakul library
Initially, she acquired the baskets to use as a drawing reference when she did not have sufficient time to complete her sketches when trying to take notes from the basket maker.
But as the years passed, she became more interested in collecting them to build a library of baskets and other handmade artefacts made from natural materials like bamboo, rattan, bemban (lias), bundusan and mengkuang.
“I derive so much joy just inspecting the details of each basket and will always find an excuse to buy yet another one, hence I must accept that it is probably an obsession! Naturally, many of my friends tease me about my acquisitive behaviour and say that I need to build a museum to house my collection,” she shares.
The baskets in this Bakul exhibition make up around half of her collection.
Most of the baskets in her collection are acquired from the maker or the owner, so she is privy to the stories that come with them – from who made the basket, how it was made and what mountains they had to climb to see the project to fruition.
It is in this spirit that the Bakul exhibition at The Godown was put together.
Besides the baskets on display, Bakul also offers a series of photographs and items collected from a research trip to Kampung Bakuku in the remote south of Sabah, such as rattan, bamboo strips, tree bark strips and tools used in basket-making.
This was an excursion the project team – which included The Godown founders Wan Yee Lim and Emily Wee, Jennifer and exhibition director Ling Hao – embarked on last year, to see how the community preserve and apply their traditional knowledge.
“When we set out to put this exhibition together, we thought that a trip to see the world of the baskets was important, as we did not want to present the bakul as mere collectors’ objects that are shown totally out of context from where they originated and the purposes for which their makers made them. Thanks to Jennifer, we were fortunate to be able to visit Kampung Bakuku, which is located to the south of Kota Kinabalu and a 10-hour journey by car.
“For some of us it was our first trip to Sabah, which made this chance to visit one of the most remote villages, with some of the most skilled basket makers in Sabah even more special. There, we learnt that the weavers not only weave but also partake in the collection and preparation of materials from the jungle. Where we see bamboo and rattan, they see a myriad of different species and qualities that we are not even able to observe, such as are they more suitable for bakul, cooking vessels or other daily objects? This skill comes from the generational knowledge that has been passed down from weaver to weaver,” says Lim.
A deeper understanding
Through this project, the team attempts to provide a richer context to understand the stories about these bakul exhibits.
“Jennifer’s book was the starting point and introduction to these bakul, and with the exhibition we wanted to translate this into something tangible and to present them in a way that is hopefully interesting, so that people from different background and ethnicities can understand and appreciate these everyday items made by the indigenous communities, and the effort that goes into their making. We hope that this diverse collection of bakul will be seen by many over the coming weeks, particularly by those who have never seen such artefacts before, let alone the many varieties that exist,” adds Lim.
Also on exhibit at The Godown are plants such as mengkuang, salingkawang, rattan and bamboo from which materials are harvested, so visitors can get an idea of their original state before being chopped down and made into usable materials.
Audience building is also a big part of the exhibition’s programme, with a Tamu (meaning “meeting”) event, a traditional open-air market of Sabah, recreated at The Godown last weekend.
In Ling’s curatorial statement, he notes that to know these baskets is to go into their world – one that springs from the plants in the jungle, and also from the sun, rain, mud, leeches, insect and everything that makes up the fierce forest.
“Each basket is a kind of fresh wonder, a transformation, from a plant, cut, carried back to a village, shaved, peeled, woven, filled with rice, strapped on the human back, trapping fish, carrying a mountain of bananas, storing medicine, working, carrying a baby. No two baskets are the same, as no two plants or two persons are the same.
“To encounter this world is to encounter a way of life. Then as it is now, it always was a daily remaking and lively reimagining. At some point, the baskets will go limp, so aged that it will become dust and return back to the earth. Shopkeepers who keep and sell these precious pieces to collectors in their air-conditioned shops say that the dry air does not help, instead hastening its brittleness. The baskets prefer to breathe as part of the natural environment where they come from, ageing, changing, darkening, softening; growing old together with us,” he writes.
While these intricately-crafted baskets at the Bakul exhibition are no doubt a sight to behold, it is clear that the stories they tell extend beyond the visible. This is a story of its origins and of a world wild and abundant, of a people and an artform perfected over many generations, and perhaps an entry point to asking, what’s next?
Bakul: Everyday Baskets From Sabah will run at The Godown till Feb 23. Admission is free by registration through The Godown’s Instagram. There will be weaving workshops and talks throughout the exhibition by craft experts and Orang Asli advocates. The next Tamu market will be held on Feb 25 and 26.