Accesorising With Culture

27 June 2016

In a world that is obsessed with replacing the old with the new, a handful of local warriors in Sabah are determined to remind us of the importance of heritage and knowing our roots.

Eleanor Goroh is a native Dusun who lives in Kota Kinabalu. She started collecting beads and researching about these precious heirlooms six years ago. Her fascination grew stronger after learning about how certain beads have special meanings to different tribes. In Borneo, beads are often associated with spiritual beliefs, power, wealth and cultural status.

From her personal collection, she begun making necklaces, bracelets, earrings and anklets. In 2012, she decided to start her own line of accessories called Magic Borneo Beads. According to Eleanor, these beads are magical because of the stories they tell. Each bead has travelled through roads and across valleys and mountains, rivers and seas, to reach Borneo and into our hands.

She says, "Sabah is known for her many colourful traditions, languages, costumes, dances and songs. Our culture and our surrounding environment is magical and you can see this representation in all the different colours, patterns, shapes and sizes of our magic beads. Every tribe has their own bead fashion, but I focus on the favoured type of beads and the unique colour combinations. "

Eleanor is self-taught. She learnt mostly from books, and she makes regular trips to the Sabah Museum to get references of old designs. She works with a variety of local and imported materials such as seed, stone, bone, shell, glass, plastic and wood. Her designs are inspired by stories she has gathered from local bead-lore and tales of beads from faraway lands.

Bead stringing is an ancient practice in Sabah and one that Eleanor intends to keep alive.  Besides creating one-of-a-kind pieces for her customers, she also conducts workshops where she encourages her students to design according to their own interpretation and inspiration.  The meaning of each string of beads comes not only from the story of its origins, but also from the story of its maker and its new owner.

"I believe that culture is not static; it is dynamic in nature. That's why it's important for me to keep up with the times and incorporate new designs as well. Cultural practices should reflect its generation and time. This is to honour and not disrespect our ancestors," she adds.  

Another local artist from Kota Kinabalu who is behind this cultural revival is Adam Kitingan. This native Kadazan quit his job in 2015 as a designer and visual effects artist to start Sang Tukang, a brand promoting traditional North Bornean designs and motifs. What started as research for a tattoo design became a journal and then, a business idea.

During the initial days, Adam started making jewellery by engraving traditional motifs on ready made bangles sold by local Dusun ladies. When he found out the bangles were made in a factory overseas, he switched to brass sheets and wires sold by local hardware stores. Adam is serious when it comes to making sure his products are authentically local. Even the pigments in his jewellery are made from charcoaled pine from his family farm in Kundasang.

"Craftsmen and souvenir vendors should be ambassadors of our culture. I get really angry and disappointed when I see souvenir shops selling mass-produced items from the Philippines, China or Indonesia and brand them as Sabahan-made. This discourages local crafters and confuses people about who we are and where we come from," he says.

Adam is very careful about only using traditional designs that he understands. He does not alter the old designs, but breaks down the aesthetics to create new motifs. Each pattern has a story to tell. What he intends to do is expand the visual vocabulary so that the current generation can tell their story through local art.

"I'm in the process of combining the styles of all the tribes into a unified North Bornean design. This includes non-indigenous groups like the Chinese and Sea Gypsies whose designs have influenced our local motifs. We cannot afford to be tribalistic anymore and continue to segregate the community. I think that the best way to move forward is to understand these forms and what it means to the community, but make it contemporary enough for this generation to wear and appreciate," he explains.

Every item that Eleanor and Adam make has a special meaning. It's not just a piece of jewellery, but a piece of their design heritage. According to these artists, indigenous art is alive and well, but it's important for the younger generation to cultivate it so it doesn't get lost in time.

By Rozella Mahjhrin

This article is related to CREATEWITHMALAYSIA