In May, Wesley Juntan posted a 30-second video on Instagram to share the traditional Ngepan Iban Saribas outfit he had tailormade for a doll.
The post on his account (@wesleyhilton) drew thousands of likes and quickly went viral. The media and even Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri took notice of his intricate work.
That surge of positivity motivated Wesley, a flight attendant, to make more traditional Sarawakian costumes for dolls.
“I felt sad when I couldn’t travel back to Sarawak for Gawai (Harvest Festival) in June, so I made the costumes to honour Gawai and posted the pictures on Instagram.
“Before I knew it, I started to receive orders for doll-sized Iban costumes from Britain, the United States and Singapore. People were intrigued by these dolls with their unique outfits and jewellery, ” says Wesley.
He is proud of his Iban heritage and especially loves the intricate designs of traditional costumes in Sarawak.
“Malaysia is made up of communities of different ethnicities. Although there are over 20 native tribes in Sarawak, most Malaysians have only seen the Iban traditional costume. Only a handful of people can differentiate costumes from other indigenous groups like Kelabit, Melanau and Orang Ulu.
“Most people from Peninsular Malaysia have little knowledge of the different tribes in Sarawak, while the younger generation is greatly lacking when it comes to knowing our heritage.
“With these dolls, I hope to introduce all the different Sarawak ethnic groups, especially those that are relatively unknown, to the world, ” says Wesley.
Wesley isn’t a stranger to dressing up dolls. Before designing Borneo-themed costumes, he used to fashion flight attendant uniforms.
“I have over 100 dolls in my collection. Unlike other collectors, I don’t keep them in boxes. I would strip off their clothes and create custom-made gowns for them.
“That’s when the idea of making a Malaysia Airlines stewardess uniform came about. It was to honour my friend Eileen Lawrence who was a cabin crew member; I made a mini version of her, ” Wesley shares.
So far, he has created 50 traditional costumes of ethnic groups in Sarawak such as Iban, Orang Ulu, Julau and Melanau, as well as a Kadazan outfit from Sabah. To complete his collection, he also designed an Iban male warrior costume for a bare-chested Ken doll.
The costumes are adorned with beautiful beadwork and Iban handwoven pua kumbu textile.
But what stands out are the elaborate sugu tinggi (filigree headpieces) that some of the dolls wear. They are also fitted with marik empang (chest adornment), kain kebat (woven skirt) and silver ornaments.
It takes Wesley about three days to complete an ensemble. Each doll is priced between RM350 and RM700. On average, he takes 10 orders a month.
Since Wesley’s dolls are a representation of Asian culture, their hair is dyed with darker colours. The dolls’ eyes are also glued with human lashes and their lips painted red.
“My vision is to make them look as similar as possible to real people, and as close as possible to our Asian feautures, ” says Wesley, who picked up his interest in handiwork from his mother Nara Bunsu, 67, a pua kumbu weaver in Sibu.
The self-taught designer hones his skills through video tutorials online. The biggest challenge for Wesley is researching the finer details of different tribal costumes.
“There isn’t enough documentation on Sarawak’s traditional costumes. It’s been a long and tiring process sieving through resource materials in libraries and online on these traditional wear.
“My biggest fear is designing something that doesn’t truly represent a tribe. To understand the uniqueness of each costume and to ensure I get it right, I speak to elders from different tribes in Sarawak.”
There’s also the challenge of looking for suitable material and thinking of how to create the intricate accessories. Wesley usually takes weeks to plan and design his work.
Nonetheless, there’s a clear sense of passion and pride whenever he talks about his creations. Wesley says each costume is unique and definitely a conversation starter.
“The Iban tribe has variations of its traditional costume; they differ according to the place of origin. Costumes worn by Ibans living in Saribas, Kapit, Julau or Saratok are all different from each other.
“Traditional costumes in Sarawak are mostly handmade. Some tribes use rattan, wood bark and cowrie shells to create their accessories.
“It reminds us of how nature has played an important role in our heritage. This is something we can’t afford to forget.”
On Malaysia Day, Wesley hopes Malaysians will be proud of the nation.
“We’ve overcome many obstacles despite our diversity, and still live in a peaceful country. Let’s live in the spirit of 1Malaysia because that’s the essence of a united nation.”
Wesley's dolls in Sarawak's traditional costumes
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