Borneo Ikat Textiles: Style Variations, Ethnicity, and Ancestry

by Traude Gavin

Published March 30, 2024

Over the past forty years, numerous publications on the weaving traditions of the Indonesian archipelago also included the Iban people of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Several monographs on Iban textiles also were published, including my own contribution Iban Ritual Textiles (2003). The textiles of closely related groups in West Kalimantan so far have not received the same kind of sustained attention, partly because of the lack of any comprehensive field research in the region. While some specimens of West Kalimantan textiles have been held in Dutch collections since the 1940s, my research carried out between 2005 and 2009 is the first field documentation of these textiles. Based on my research, this study presents examples from several West Kalimantan groups, including the Bugau, Banjur, Mualang, Kantu’, Desa, Demam, Senangan, Sebaru’ and Ketungau Sesat peoples. It also documents the style variations particular to the Balau Iban, a Sarawak group. This study provides a record for ethnic groups in Sarawak and West Kalimantan of textiles that many of the groups themselves no longer possess. It also provides a tool for identifying the ethnic association of specimens in museum and private collections where most of these textiles are being kept today. Finally, it corrects misleading terminology and erroneous identifications that have appeared in recent publications showcasing textiles from West Kalimantan groups. Field data documenting textiles with close to 300 illustrations form the core of this study. The principal focus is the identification of style variations unique to specific ethnic groups. Such characteristics of style can serve to index ethnic affiliation and ancestry. The complex issue of ethnic labels and identity—above all their inherent impermanence and flexibility—is placed into historical perspective from pre-colonial times to the present, reflecting the increasing frequency of intermarriage and multi-ethnicity. A significant contribution of this publication to the field of Iban textile studies is that it shifts the focus from solely the Iban to encompass the extensive complex of related peoples in West Kalimantan, thereby making a step towards adjusting the dominance of the Iban in the ethnographic literature.