Borneo Heart: Curator’s Notes

Tikar & Tamu

The tikar, as Yee I-Lann will tell us, and anyone who has grown up in Southeast Asia will know, is used for many things – for sleeping, eating, drying fish or rice; for community meetings and celebrations; for prayers, rituals.

Different communities have different names for the woven mat. And although less and less common to modern life in cities, many communities in Sabah, Borneo, Southeast Asia and indeed the wider world, maintain particular traditions of mat-weaving and motifs, so that mats also carry different histories and meanings. They are almost always woven by women.

For Yee I-Lann, who has been making and exhibiting work in the global contemporary art world for over two decades, the journey with tikar began as a means of finding community as she relocated her practice from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu around 2016/2017.

As an artist, activist and thinker, her practice has consistently spoken to urgencies in the contemporary world. In her work with photomedia, she has been a stitcher of images, a weaver of stories, pulling together personal experience and popular aesthetics, local and Southeast Asian cultures and histories, into an imaginary, critical space. As she makes a significant turn in her art practice, the tikar comes to represent a “space where things get activated”.

On the tikar, everyone is invited, everyone sits on the same level, and anything can happen. The tikar is domestic, it is local, it is feminist, democratic, egalitarian. It is a way of thinking, and rethinking, about how we use and share space – the space of community (politics), the space of storytelling, the space of cultural production and economics (art-making).

Delving into this concept, I-Lann embarked in early 2018 on working with weavers from Keningau associated with Pusat Kraftangan Sabah, and from Pulau Omadal, Semporna, to make tikar as collaborative contemporary artworks.

For Julitah Kulinting, head teacher of bamboo pus weaving at Pusat Kraftangan Sabah, and her team, the tikar collaboration has created an important opportunity for experimenting and innovating in an industry sustained by mass production primarily for the tourist industry, mostly of baskets and sirung hats. Today, most mats made by inland people like the Dusun Murut are made for practical purposes, with plain mats used for rituals.

For the stateless Bajau Sama DiLaut women weavers off Pulau Omadal, weaving tepo first and foremost puts rice on the table. The heritage tepo they weave for special occasions such as wedding dowries, had previously all but disappeared. An alternative economy has been created through this collaborative art project, and through the sale of mats of their own designs made possible by this collaboration. With income from their craft, the community depends less on fishing to survive, and they can stay home with their children. For lead collaborator Roziah Jalalid, marine conservationist, documentary filmmaker, and Chairperson of WAPO (Persatuan Wanita Pulau Omadal) from the Malaysian Bajau Laut or self-identified Bajau Tempatan (“local Bajau”) community on Pulau Omadal, the revival of tepo weaving has also meant less damage to a vital and increasingly threatened marine environment that is part of the Coral Triangle.

As the collaboration between I-Lann and these weaver communities developed and expanded, with mats commissioned for institutions and exhibitions around the Asia Pacific, it came time to bring together a body of work as an exhibition, starting on home ground. The inaugural presentation of Borneo Heart in Kota Kinabalu includes a 60-mat installation, giant mats, a woven sculpture, works in photomedia and video involving dancers, photographers, videographers and friends, a stall selling the weavers’ mats and special cenderamata (souvenirs), and, pandemic allowing, a planned curated weekend tamu (market) by KeTAMU.

Borneo Heart is an exhibition about sharing the mat, the tikar (Malay), or apin (Murut), or tepo (Bajau Sama DiLaut): “When you come to a meeting or a celebration on a tikar and there is no room left on the mat, your host will hurry to lay down another mat to make space.” (Yee I-Lann)

In this way, the body of work presented in Borneo Heart has grown to encompass different practices, communities and individuals, and the exhibition itself has enveloped supporting institutions and independent teams and professionals. Borneo Heart then becomes a platform for sharing and exchange, reflecting the function of diversity of the traditional tamu, where peoples of the hills, plains, river and sea communities of Sabah meet to trade resources, knowledge, skills and stories.

In this exhibition we find stories of home, love, language, power and community.

It begins at the complex of the brand new Sabah International Convention Centre, built on the site of the original Jesselton Port, across from Pulau Gaya, where the British North Borneo Chartered Company first established a “capital” at Api-Api, burnt down by Bajau hero Mat Salleh in 1897. This area has always been a home to Bajau peoples. The Centre backs onto Signal Hill and Kota Kinabalu town, with Mount Kinabalu to the northeast.

The exhibition is spread across two annexes connected by a wide plaza in front of the main centre. One faces the sea, the other the hill.

Tanah & Air
paths of the wind weave shadows bare bones of a mat

We can begin by walking towards the water. Against the glass walls of the annexe facing out onto the South China Sea hangs a 4 x 5m pandanus mat. On it, the words “Tanah & Air” patterned with stripes, checks and chevrons in brightly-dyed Bajau Sama DiLaut colours stand tall as people. The mat, titled tanahairku #002, hung up, becomes a billboard, proclaiming a central principle of Borneo Heart, which is the coming together of tanah (land) and air (water/sea) to make up tanahair (homeland). Between the peoples of the interior and the peoples of the sea in Sabah there is historic animosity and suspicion, underscoring even contemporary politics. “Tanah & Air” is a statement woven by both stateless and Malaysian Bajau weavers about belonging to a place, a message from the people of the sea to the people of the land that they belong to this place together. In the building opposite, in tanahairku #003, the same message is woven in kayu obol black natural dye on bamboo pus by the Dusun Murut weavers of Keningau, above it, a row of small triangles indicating the mountains in the distance, below it a row of larger triangles like the waves of the sea.

Looking out the glass windows, you see Pulau Gaya with its large community of stateless Bajau inhabitants. One end of a very long, narrow, richly coloured tikar stretches out towards the sea, coiled up at the base. This Tikar Reben forms a dictionary of heritage weaving patterns used across Bajau communities, an index of knowledge passed down and to be shared and learnt from. Back at Pulau Omadal in Semporna right across the interior on the other side of Sabah, we watch from above as its weavers unfurl the tikar from the small jetty of Kak Roziah’s Bajau Tempatan kampung on the island across to Kak Budi’s house in the water village, bridging a border between citizenship and statelessness, between paper rights and a life with no safety nets and no protection.

The pandanus plants used by the Bajau Sama DiLaut weavers, dried, stripped and boiled in commercial dye, grow along the coast of Omadal and surrounding islands, and are replanted by the community, so that there is a sustainable ecosystem providing their materials. The Bajau Sama DiLaut weave by counting, from the centre outwards, so that patterns and motifs built of bright colours provide for the complexity and richness of their designs, which at the same time speak of the colour and diversity of life at and under the sea.

The bamboo pus used by the inland DusunMurut weavers, says Julitah Kulintang, is getting harder and harder to source. The bemban and bundusan plants I-Lann’s Kadazan grandmother used to weave have proved almost impossible to find now. Using this stiffer material, most inland weavers weave with the “x” and “+”, creating subtle motifs and patterns within the weave itself, which draw from the natural landscape and animals of the interior, the life and culture of the rice harvest, and more, at most using natural black and occasionally red dye for colour.

These are the bare bones of a mat, the basic material and forms of its visual languages.

Three tikar, Mansau Ansau, Tinukad tukad kad and 3 hovering Louvres, looking tentatively out at sea, offer a distinct contrast to the bright and forceful statements made above in the mats from Pulau Omadal. Here, as images of objects are put in play with motifs which are designed to be read flat, a sense of optical illusion and flux is created.

In 3 hovering Louvres, the shadow-like forms of a mat beneath three louvre windows are built out of different weaves. The small mat is formed using a traditional snaking ulanut motif, the hovering windows from an improvised weave that creates the effect of light falling across glass panes. These are set within a background made up of a new weave invented in 2018 by Julitah Kulinting,, Lili Naming, Shahrizan bin Juin and I-Lann they have named mansau ansau, Dusun for “to walk and walk, not knowing where you are headed”.

The image created captures the experience of lying on a mat, with warm wind and sounds flowing in and out through the louvre windows. They are the familiar louvre windows of I-Lann’s childhood bedroom, but the mat’s title is also a play on Paris’ Musée du Louvre, representing the weight of European cultural and art history. And so this tikar proposes an idea of balancing that weight, and decolonising our visual language and our cultural imagination.

The louvre window appears again on Mansau Ansau, in a kind of room under a starry night sky. In the centre is the nantuapan motif, which can signify aramaiti, with its many meanings of coming and sharing together. Above is a ceiling fan, kipas, circulating air; below, a mat like a portal from which coloured “giuk”, like worms or germs from another world, another memory, explode into the space. To the right is a table, a symbol of hard (patriarchal, colonial) power and knowledge, attached to its haunting shadow. In Tinukad tukad kad, the motifs mansau ansau, pinungoh nandayunan (hill ridges without end) and tinukad tukad kad (ridges at the top of the mouth) run through wide rigid strips or geometric grids, as if trapped by, or taking over corridors and grids of power. Tables topple.

Many knowledges are at play here as familiar imagery and ancient and new motifs are woven together – inherited old knowledge, personal memory, cultural theory. A dynamic aesthetic is created as hands and minds work through together what is possible.

An untitled self-portrait in photomedia (2017) by Yee I-Lann stands in this space, which was made in the process of relocating home to Sabah. Meanings here are similarly collapsed together, this time embedded in photographic images, waiting to be unpacked. An odd structure balances precariously against the peak of Mount Kinabalu, I-Lann’s “compass to home”. The artist’s small figure appears in different positions, lying on a plain tikar, propping up, squashed between, lying and sitting on tables piled on top of one another. A banana tree pops out from a plastic stool. (Sabah is named for a type of banana; pontianak, for I-Lann, a feminist icon made into a monster in a man’s world, are said to live in banana trees). From a watering can, a yellow hose snakes out and around the structure roughly forming the outline of Borneo. The striped cotton sheets under which she dreams envelop her and drop over the structure like a sail or curtain. Here is the artist carrying the burden of her own power, knowledge and privilege, with the understanding that she can make choices of what work to make and for whom. In her basket, she holds storytelling, the hopes and fears of her communities, ideas about domestic economy and well-being, and somewhere within, a solution.

This work relates a chapter in I-Lann’s thinking that has led her home towards the mountain, and towards the mat during a time of fluctuation and foreboding: paths of the wind weave shadows bare bones of a mat.

This sentence forms the 5th and final chapter in a personal “essay” that began in 2012, on the 55th anniversary of Merdeka (Malayan Independence), called rasa sayang.

deliver us from this long night

We walk out across the plaza towards the hills into the annexe building opposite, and we come face to face with the full text of rasa sayang – 488 photo tiles in complementary blue and orange arranged in rows across a 24m long wall that cuts the space in half. Each tile holds the image of a human hug, etched out to form a letter of the alphabet. The essay is made up of a title, five chapters (each chapter a sentence) and an epilogue.

The essay has been composed against the backdrop of a divided and divisive Malaysian socio-political landscape, a chapter appearing every two years as a personal and emotional response to events, taking in two historic general elections and set to culminate in 2020, the year Mahathir Mohamad envisioned the realisation of a Malaysia “fully developed in terms of national unity and social cohesion, in terms of our economy, in terms of social justice, political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence”. The title “rasa sayang” describes the feeling of love, but also that of regret and disappointment.

Chapter 1 begins, “the sun will rise in the east and deliver us from this dark night”. Yee I-Lann, living in Kuala Lumpur, in 2012, looks home towards East Malaysia with hope. The following chapters read like a letter to “the other”, expressing at turns suspicion, frustration and empathy. They are written across the divide between East and West Malaysia, between ethnic groups, between the people and those who hold power.

The images of hugs come from family and friends in East and West Malaysia, collaborating with the artist as a community – her personal community – to make up a script and a message that speaks of love and holding together. For the epilogue, following a 2020 which failed its vision in every aspect, in the midst of the pandemic which has separated so many, I-Lann called out for new hugs between those who still could: “send me your arms in an embrace”.

Going through to the other side of the 24m wall, we find ourselves facing another massive collective statement, Tikar/Meja – 60 Bajau Sama DiLaut mats on which have been woven 60 tables.

Tables recur through I-Lann’s work as representations of administrative power, the kinds of power used to exercise control over others – colonial, patriarchal, federal, state power. They are the opposite of the non-hierarchical, community-based, open platform of the tikar.

Tikar/Meja boldly faces the dense greenery of Signal Hill and urban traffic through the glass wall. It forms a message from the stateless to the administration that has the power to grant them protection and citizenship, from the periphery to the centre, from the people on the mat to the people at the table: The table can be rolled up, “eaten” by the mat. Like in a game of scissors, paper, stone.

In front of Tikar/Meja hangs a woven sculpture of a seven-headed lalandau “hat”. The individual headdress is part of ceremonial dress for Murut men, considered traditionally as fierce, forest warriors, and usually has open “chimneys” on top representing trees of the jungle into which argus bird (lalandau) feathers would once have been stuffed (other coloured feathers are used nowadays). Here, seven hats are joined together by woven tubes. For PANGKIS, named after the triumphant warrior cry, an animistic guttural call, which punctuates traditional KadazanDusun rituals and dances, I-Lann collaborated with Tagaps Dance Theatre, a group of young dancers whose practice merges traditional and contemporary styles. The woven object combines with sound play and human movement to explore the rootedness and old knowledge of Sabah’s land cultures, as well as male group (and by extension, political) behaviour.

In the two-storey void next to the wall hangs a giant two-sided mat in a typical checked weave, common to the nusantara. The front is woven with the large silhouettes of tables, which fall like shadows of power on this Sama DiLaut community’s mat, bright white lines crossing through creating the effect of bright reflected sunlight.

To view the back of this mat we have to travel down to the level below: here we find the names of the makers of the mat. When asked what to name this mat, Kak Budi immediately suggested: Tepo Aniya Nombor Na (Mat with a Number). The weavers themselves have no number, no paper identity, so they claim the honour of an identity for their tepo. They claim an identity, recognition and voice through their cultural heritage.

you and me and you and i and you and you

Downstairs, we find ourselves on street level. We have worked our way back to the beginning of this essay, which talks about sharing the tikar.

Facing the window to the street is the giant Tikar Emoji, the only artwork in the exhibition that lies flat as a tikar should. You and your friends are invited to sit and lie down on it. On this bright Bajau Sama DiLaut mat, there are no tables, no names, no heritage motifs with layered meanings. There are instead over a hundred colourful emojis that range from familiar smiley faces to symbols you may not actually find on your phone, like a seastar and an undersea diver.

Emojis carry the same function as many traditional weaving motifs, expressing everyday experience. I-Lann has noted that weavers often describe a motif not just by what it signifies or “stands for” visually but in terms of how it feels to weave a motif – like the mansau ansau, meandering in random directions. In our world today they offer a shared language that requires no unpacking or translation, as close as we come to a universal tongue. Perhaps we come closer to understanding the language of weaving by trying to imagine how it may feel to weave a happy or angry emoji.

Around the centre of the space are two suspended Dusun Murut mats densely woven with straight rows of text. Popular songs are another medium that connect us to one another through shared feelings, even as each of us carries a different meaning and experience to their words, and these are “karaoke” mats, to be sung along to as we read them. Karaoke singing which forms a soundtrack all around Sabah. As we, in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Melbourne or Los Angeles, read hello from the outside, made up of lyrics from favourite karaoke songs surveyed among collaborators from Omadal and Keningau, we find ourselves in the same globalised cultural space as the weavers.

Focusing on a more localised collective experience, Dusun Karaoke Mat: Ahaid zou noh doiti (I’ve been here a long time) comprises lyrics from beloved and iconic Dusun songs. Many are from the 1970s and 80s, at one time banned from the airwaves, and widely sung in resistance against assimilation, forced national identity and globalisation.

For the text on these mats, I-Lann and the weavers developed a “digital” font, tying the binary + and x of their weaving method to digital language, and the basic tiny square units created by the weave to the digital pixel. The emoji, the digital pixel, as elements of our contemporary language, are invested with new meanings and possibilities as they get woven into the mat. We come to recognise that tradition, like story, is not trapped in time, and that it can help us to find languages you and me and you and I and you and you can speak, embedded with different and same meanings for each.

Measuring Project began after almost all the mats for this exhibition had been completed, forming a kind of sketchbook for thinking about what might be unrolled in the mat. It is made as a photomedia essay, introduced by its first chapter in this inaugural presentation. Groups of people are photographed on the mat in a series of different social interactions, or acts of gathering, performing within some of the motifs we find through the other works.

The Borneo Heart poster that inspired the title of this exhibition claims for Borneo “a position at the centre of ASEAN and at the heart of the world”. It grew out of a Facebook post made when forest fires were raging on Borneo in 2019 causing a particularly noxious haze, and centres on Borneo as a vital and endangered nexus of the world’s natural ecosystems – set on the equator between the lungs of the Congo and the Amazon.

Borneo Heart the exhibition equally audaciously claims a position at the tipping point of a world right now grappling with questions of climate change, decolonising systems of power, knowledge and culture. A position that calls for finding solutions that come from within communities, for a shift of power from the table to the mat. It argues that art can change the world, through empowering communities and creating new languages for story-telling together. It invokes the spirit of the tamu, calling for a reimagining of what each of us bring to the mat and to market.

Please do make sure to stop at Kedai Kerbauworks before you leave the exhibition, and maybe pick up a Borneo Heart poster, or a tepo designed by the weavers from Pulau Omadal, a t-shirt (no two t-shirts are the same), or a kilo of rice grown from one of 32 traditional varieties from Kampung Tinuhan and Kampung Lapasan Ulu in Tuaran.

If you cannot come to Kota Kinabalu, you can purchase something online at Kedai KerbauWorks (coming soon).

Beverly Yong