GO ON a sacred journey through the corridors of Universiti Malaya’s art gallery and be historically enlightened as Sarawak’s famous textile tales of Pua Kumbu come alive.
On display until June 30, about 40 traditionally used ceremonial cloths line the walls of the gallery, each weaved with its very own story for the public to decipher.
These stories can also be seen through a mobile phone app which visitors can upload via a QR code on the wall before entering the main introduction section.
The app will allow visitors to see the story behind the exhibits on their phone by simply pointing the phone at any display.
Every design on the cloth has a story to tell with the help of the app.
Apart from bringing back to life 230 folklore and stories passed down from more than 600 years ago, the exhibition also aims to showcase the dying cultural heritage that the Iban people have kept secret all these years.
“Pua Kumbu is something very sacred and spiritual to them and the weavers don’t usually share what they know with just anyone. I know many who have tried but failed,” said the university’s Arts and Social Sciences Faculty senior lecturer Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom.
Welyne, who fell in love with Pua Kumbu’s history while leading the research said “Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu Exhibition: The Sacred Journey” is the result of her historical findings.
She hopes to attract visitors of all ages including schoolchildren to view the interactive exhibition which consists of videos showing the intricate Pua Kumbu weaving process.
It starts with the origins of Pua Kumbu to what inspires these weavers before moving on to the yarn preparation, the dyeing process and the weaving.
Pua, which means blanket and kumbu which means to cover, also has various designs, one for each occasion such as wedding, childbirth and even funerals.
However, Pua Kumbu funeral designs are usually not displayed for public viewing as they are used to wrap the bodies.
For the Iban people alone, there are more than 40 different rituals, each with their own Pua Kumbu design.
“I visited their home in Kapit Sarawak numerous times for my research and I managed to convince them to allow me to share this with the public,” said Welyne.
There, in the Rumah Garie longhouse, Welyne not only saw the weavers in action but also met master weaver Bangie ak Embol, who has been acknowledged by her peers as the leader in their weaving community.
The 77-year-old master weaver has also been acknowledged worldwide for her Pua Kumbu creations, with some of her work displayed at prominent buildings overseas.
“She is acknowledged as the master because she gets callings and guidance from the gods on the whole weaving process.
“This is also called dream designs, which is a very sacred thing to them and can only be weaved by her alone,” said Welyne, who has been adopted by Bangie as her daughter.
Although Bangie tries teaching other weavers to weave one of her dream designs, it just somehow doesn’t turn out right.
As most of their dream designs are very sacred to them, Bangie has about seven dream designs that she tied and weaved but did not dye as she did not want to show them to other people.
“She showed me the pieces at her home but I could not make out what they were until she dyed the yarn. This is when the design will show,” added Welyne.
Using only natural dye from raw materials, the standard Pua Kumbu, which measures about eight feet by four feet, takes about one month to complete.
Previously, one piece took between six months and a year to complete because the weavers used cold water to dye the yarn, which took much longer to dry.
Due to the long process and also the time it takes to learn the skills, this culture among the Iban women is dying out as the younger generation is not interested in weaving.
“It is also difficult because the younger ones spend more time in boarding schools studying than at their longhouse learning to weave,” she said.
There is also the economic factor, where they cannot make much money from this.
To keep the Pua Kumbu tradition going, Welyne has set up an e-commerce platform to help them sell their products.
Their products are on sale at the gallery as well, which comprises shoes, bags and even clothes made with the Pua Kumbu.
The gallery located on the fifth level of the Chancellery Building is open from Mondays to Saturdays, between 9am and 5pm.
A group tour can also be pre-arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org