Social fabric : circulating Pua Kumbu textiles of the Indigenous Dayak Iban people in Sarawak, Malaysia

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Within Borneo, the indigenous Iban pua kumbu cloth, historically associated with headhunting, is steeped in spirituality and mythology. The cloth, the female counterpart of headhunting, was known as women’s war (Linggi, 1999). The process of mordanting yarns in preparation for tying and dyeing was seen as a way of managing the spiritual realm (Heppell, Melak, & Usen, 2006). It required of the ‘women warriors’ psychological courage equivalent to the men when decapitating enemies. Headhunting is no longer a relevant cultural practice. However, the cloth that incited headhunting continues to be invested with significance in the modern world, albeit in the absence of its association with headhunting. This thesis uses the pua kumbu as a lens through which to explore the changing dynamics of social and economic life with regard to men’s and women’s roles in society, issues of identity and nationalism, people’s relationship to their environment and the changing meanings and roles of the textiles themselves with global market forces. By addressing these issues I aim to capture the fluid expressions of new social dynamics using a pua kumbu in a very different way from previous studies. Using the scholarship grounded in art and material culture studies, and with particular reference to theories of ‘articulation’ (Clifford, 2001), ‘circulation’ (Graburn & Glass, 2004) and ‘art and agency’ (Gell, 1998; MacClancy, 1997a), I analyse how the Dayak Iban use the pua kumbu textile to renegotiate their periphery position within the nation of Malaysia (and within the bumiputera indigenous group) and to access more enabling social and economic opportunities. I also draw on the theoretical framework of ‘friction’ and ‘contact zones’ as outlined by Tsing (2005), Karp (2006) and Clifford (1997) to contextualize my discussion of the of the exhibition and representation of pua kumbu in museums. Each of these theoretical frameworks is applied to my data to situate and illustrate my arguments. Whereas in the past, it was the culture that required the object be made, now the object is made to do cultural work. The cloth, instead of revealing hidden symbols and meanings in its motifs, is now made to carry the culture, having itself become a symbol or marker for Iban people. Using an exploration of material culture to understand the complex, dynamic and flowing nature of the relationship between objects and the identities of the producers and consumer is the key contribution of this thesis.
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