Sarawakian paints Iban motifs on plates to preserve heritage


Kalum is one the few Sarawakians who make ceramic plates which are hand-painted with traditional Iban motifs. Photos: Roslan Razali

Helena David Kalum is proud of her Iban heritage, well aware of the importance of preserving it for future generations.

For the past five years, she has been creating and selling ceramic beads and accessories featuring traditional Sarawakian designs.

And since April, the Kuching-based entrepreneur has diversified her business by making ceramic plates hand-painted with traditional Iban motifs, one of the few Sarawakians to do so.

“I am a big fan of antique, hand-painted tableware from Europe and China. As an Iban, I have always been interested in learning about heirloom hand- moulded Sarawak pottery with traditional designs.

“I was inspired to paint Iban motifs on ceramic plates during the first movement control order. During the stay-home period, I spent my time perfecting the craft, specifically choosing suitable Iban designs that would look nice on plates,” said Kalum, 47, during an email interview.

Kalum's plates are decorated with traditional Iban kelingai designs. Kalum's plates are decorated with traditional Iban kelingai designs.

Kalum learnt to make ceramic beads at several courses organised by the state government, Malaysia Handicraft (Sarawak branch) and Sirim. Armed with the knowledge and expertise in ceramic craft, it wasn’t difficult for the mother of one to venture into making ceramic plates.

Kalum paints Iban tribal motifs that revolve around variations of the kelingai (traditional art) designs. Historically, the Iban community derives their wooden carvings or tattoo designs from plants and animals, which denote their spiritual prowess.

The motifs include bunga terung (eggplant), teku engkeliat (gambir leaves) and buah kelembak pecah lapan (garcinia cambogia fruit).

Kalum manipulates each kelingai design with different curves to create motifs representing marine life, venomous creatures, flora or fauna. She paints the rim of each plate with pua kumbu designs, simpai (armlets) patterns and tengulun (hand) tattoo motifs.

Kalum air-dries her hand-painted plates overnight before they undergo a 30-minute fire glazing process to protect and enhance the underlying design. Kalum air-dries her hand-painted plates overnight before they undergo a 30-minute fire glazing process to protect and enhance the underlying design.

As each motif is unique, Kalum finds it hard to pinpoint her favourite one.

“Each design is special and has its own beauty. It’s my wish to highlight more designs to ensure they can be documented for future generations. I also want to promote and market Sarawak’s unique heritage to a wider audience,” she said.

Kalum works with Integrated Digital Entrepreneur Association of Sarawak (Ideas) president Roslan Razali to mix and match the colours of the Iban motifs on plates to make them more attractive.

Together with two workers, she operates her business at the Industrial Development Ministry’s incubator and training centre in Demak Laut, a 30-minute drive from Sarawak’s state capital. At the centre, she undergoes training on how to secure a bigger market, whether domestically or globally.

Due to the pandemic and movement restrictions, she has changed her marketing strategy and turned to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to further promote her handmade products.

“Social media is a great way to promote not only my handmade plates but also Sarawak as a popular tourist destination. Many netizens are fascinated with my plates, which feature traditional designs.

“The bunga terung design is one of the most sought-after ones because it’s synonymous with the Iban community,” explained Kalum, adding that she has customers from as far as Britain, Australia and China.

Each plate measures between 20cm and 28cm in diameter. The intricate patterns, ranging from geometrical, circular to triangular, are designed using acrylic enamel paint.

“It takes between one and three days to paint a plate, depending on the design. While it is a time-consuming task, there’s a sense of calm whenever I paint each plate,” Kalum shared.

The painted plates are then air-dried overnight before undergoing a 30-minute fire glazing process to protect and enhance the design. The last step consists of firing them in a kiln for 48 hours.

Despite the tedious process, Kalum remains steadfast in her mission to preserve her roots.

“I’m proud of my Iban culture and heritage. It is essential to pass it down to the next generation,” she said.

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