Knowledge and Indigeneity – An interview with Welyne Jehom (Part 2)

This is part two of a two-part interview conducted by O For Other editors Lay Sheng and Sheau on Sunday, 6 October 2019, with Welyne Jehom, an anthropologist who researches Pua Kumbu textiles. Read the first part here. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

O: You talked a lot about the category of the master weaver and the idea of intangible heritage. What goes into the hierarchisation of weaving patterns, and how does that correspond to the idea of the master weaver?

WJ: Designs have been categorised. I asked them to explain how they categorised it to me: it operates on a system from 0 to 10. So they gave me the names of each design that fits into each level. So if you are a young weaver, you cannot weave at level 10. There is a taboo that comes with that, such as falling sick or angering the spirits.

Basically, what I realized was that when you are young, there are certain techniques that you have to learn before you are able to make a difficult design. With design, there are also steps: you do big curls, then you do smaller curls, then you have to be able to connect the curls with the branch and the main pillars. Designing pua kumbu, you need to be able to count based on the design that you are looking at: how many kayu, how many belebas. If not, you will not have it symmetrical. If you are a new weaver and you don’t know these rules, your designs will not be straight, it will be as if the textile is bleeding. But of course the weavers don’t explain it, they say that it’s taboo. Taboo is a scapegoat word. “Mali,” in their words.

O: You talk a lot about pua kumbu as an intangible cultural heritage. What do you think of that term and its political connotations? 

WJ: When I use the word “intangible” at the beginning, I didn’t know that it was very political. Only when I saw so many people using the word did I realise. When we speak about conservation, we always speak about the tangible aspect: in fact, Malaysia only introduced “intangible heritage” in 2015. I saw it on UNESCO’s website. Malaysia still doesn’t have many listed, just mak yong and some others. There are so many dying arts. Even songket has not been listed, a contested cultural legacy claimed by both Brunei and Indonesia. Even the word “ikat,” Indonesia was trying to list it at UNESCO. But ikat is a method, it’s used in India, China, everybody uses the word “ikat.” That’s why it was rejected. It’s a tie and dye resist process. But I’m trying to list “kebat,” which is also a method, but it’s more elaborate. Iban kebat is very difficult: even though Indonesia is also doing it, but only in Kalimantan, but they have lost that particular knowledge.

O: This idea of intangible heritage, especially when you get international organisations like UNESCO in, is embedded with the idea that this knowledge belongs to the world. What do you think of that kind of categorisation, and do you think the idea of intangible cultural heritage has lost some of the force it had in the beginning?

WJ: It’s very conflicting for me in that, yes, it should belong to the world as that is the only way we can ensure its survival. The more people know about it, the more people practice it, it can go on. With Iban’s pua kumbu, only now have people started becoming interested in its knowledge – not the material artefact. Because they are realising that if you own antique pua kumbu, that’s it, it stops there. The intangible aspect of pua kumbu will continue to bring you the tangible aspect. The textile will be able to be reproduced. I faced a lot of questions from collectors – they always ask, is this antique? Is it the tangible or intangible? I say, “This is newly woven, but the design is very old. So how do you categorise this? Would you rather keep the old textile with lots of holes and has been eaten by mites, and you will never ever get another one because you only have the textile but no knowledge of it, or would you rather get this one, which can be reproduced through the same technique. This is not merely a replica, as the value of the textile is precisely in this knowledge and technique which requires a lifetime’s accumulation of weaving knowledge. Hence, the classification of something as ‘intangible’ is very political in ways that promote and undermine our heritage. There are no easy answers..

O: Are there sometimes tensions between you, as an ethnically other anthropologist, and the community.

WJ: The knowledge of pua kumbu is very political. I receive little support from Iban associations because I am Bidayuh. In the beginning, I received notes put under my door saying, Who are you Bidayuh doing in the region of Iban? What is your intention in doing research into pua kumbu? Are you trying to steal our knowledge? The master weaver had to announce in gatherings in front of other weavers to say, “This is my adopted daughter. I want her to know what I am doing because I want her to help me document the knowledge”. That’s why I only work with one master weaver, not only because she is very innovative but also because she understands the importance of the intangible aspects of pua kumbu has to be passed down.


WJ: I don’t know if you believe in black magic?

O: Yes.

WJ: I never believed in it, but I’ve never dismissed it, because I come from a community still steeped in certain “traditions”. I have healer’s blood. All my ancestors are healers – they don’t do “black magic”. Naturally, we are born with that kind of knowledge: there are little things you do and things that you are sensitive towards. I’m very sensitive towards energy. I just know what is going on when I’m in a bad situation. Three years ago, I suddenly couldn’t walk. I couldn’t bend my knees, I started to have nightmares. I always feel that I’m being followed by something and I started to act crazy with my family. I was very violent. My husband said there’s something wrong with you. The French, they’re all Cartesian, they don’t believe in these things.

The master weaver sensed the oddity of my situation. She said “There’s something wrong with you, I can feel it.” And she prayed and everything. Finally, my uncle brought me to the house of distant relative, who is a powerful healer. There were so many people, some had even come to the peninsula to come and see her. The moment I came in, she stopped. “I need to see you first, you look so heavy,” she said. “You are carrying seven people on your back.” Really? I came in and she stopped everything with the rest of the people. She told me to sit down and strip off – but with a sarong – and she asked me to stand on a white sheet. Then she quickly did something and said, “I need to clear you because it is going into your system.” I said, “What’s going into my system? How can you see?” Then she didn’t touch anything, she was praying, and took turmeric leaves and hit me with the turmeric leaves – that’s it. And she has no pockets and she was just wearing a sarong and a T-shirt. It is impossible that she could carry these things with her. And one by one, objects started falling off my body. Shattered fluorescent glasses, small perfume bottles with needles, another bottle that has been wrapped with red cloth, another bottle with my hair in it, and there’s another bottle which I saw, the other side of my diamond stud which I had been looking for since the year 2013. But of course, I couldn’t take it. It was a gift from my husband when I gave birth to my second daughter. I said, “My diamond stud!” “Ya, it’s been in your body.” I couldn’t explain it to my husband. For three days, I couldn’t walk. For three days, I was in bed, having fever and everything. After that, I was fine again. I felt light for the first time in a while and I stopped having nightmares.

There was a second time when someone tried to poison me. The master weaver just threw my plate as I was about to eat. She could feel it, and see that something was wrong in my plate. I said, “Why did you do that?” “If I don’t do that, you’re going to die,” she said. “If you don’t believe me, I’m going to feed your rice to the dog.” True enough, the dog died. It turned blue. I felt sorry for the dog but she was trying to prove her point. These stories, are just misfortunes that come with the work.

O: You are positioned here as an intermediary of knowledge. Even just now, you asked us if we believe in black magic and you were apprehensive. But you also deal with people like Palgrave MacMillan.

WJ: I don’t write anything like that!


WJ: There are two sides of me. When I am writing my academic paper, it’s really an anthropological write-up. I don’t put myself as part of the experience, I just see whatever I’ve seen and experienced as part of my observations. So that’s why I take a long time to write – it’s very hard to filter. As an indigenous person writing about indigenous knowledge, it’s even harder. Sometimes I cannot see the boundaries of this kind of knowledge – whether I should include it or not, whether I’m crazy to include it. I’m writing strictly based on anthropological observations and experiences.

O: Do you practice anthropology differently?

WJ: Of course, I also bring my own research values into a project. I always ask myself, “When I am communicating with them, am I interviewing them?” Especially with this kind of research, I can’t be bringing my papers. So when I interview, I just put my handphone on, and I tell them that I am recording them, I am doing research. But the way I do research is a form of learning with my “subjects”.. Not from you, but with you. There are certain words you use in their particular language. If you say, “I want to learn from you,” they will not share. Say, “I want to learn with you.”

O: So this relationship is not purely extractive. They are also coming to you to ask you what certain patterns mean.

WJ: Yes, yes. They also learn how to teach from me: It’s a kind of exchange of knowledge. When I started to get involved in the production of pua kumbu, especially in the aspect of product and design development, fixer and colour development and all this based on research, the other anthropologists were saying to me “You are not a real anthropologist because you are intervening on their practices and lives. As an anthropologist, you are supposed to leave your subject matters as they are.” But when I engage with this community, I want to gauge their acceptance and reaction towards new ideas toward conserving intangible knowledge, and to develop further so that it does not die with them. So I stage in this community: I was introducing different methods of learning and teaching textiles. I interrupt their traditional way of passing down knowledge. I started to have video tutorials, and created a space where younger ones could communicate with the weavers. They are being given a frame to practice.

I also established a one-stop weaving learning hub at the longhouse, so that other weavers from other regions can come and stay for a week or two. I also introduced workshops to give accounting literacy, because when they sell their product, they always get cheated. When they get commissioned, they often get cheated as well. They are very vulnerable and have been exploited to the highest level. That’s why I put in this structure, so they are taken care of and there is conservation work which is truly a work on conservation: not merely in their art, but also on themselves and the way they think. And also, I give values to their work, in the sense of monetary cash and… I set up, ok. In the beginning, when you are weaving you should not be charging as much as the higher ones because that will create jealousy. You have to understand that. So what I did with them was that with all the weavers, we categorised the designs from 1 to 10.

O: Right, so you’re using their own scale.

WJ: Right. So there are different prices. When new weavers saw that kind of level, they dare not weave it because they know they can’t. When they see the kind of prices for the higher levels, it encourages them to learn more. So those kinds of things didn’t exist before. When I first met them, there was so much friction, and this friction was caused by two aspects: the competition in pua kumbu weaving, which has been implemented since the 1980s by Sarawak Atelier Society with the state government, with Sarawak Craft Council. It created conflict and jealousy among the top weavers. The most skillful weavers, the top weavers with the most beautiful designs never won because they were not on good terms with the jury. The jury always comes from the same region, so only people from the same region would win the competition. So instead of working together, they became enemies.

O: What was the relationship like before the competitions started?

WJ: They don’t hate each other, but they are not in communication. But they exchange designs. See, after the competition, they don’t even talk to each other. They poison each other, according to the master weaver. Just for the small amount of money. But for them, it’s about prestige, it’s not about the money. When you are picked as the winner of pua kumbu weaving, it’s not even their design, often it is copied. Just to measure the skill… by Sarawak Craft Council and state government, and Sarawak Society Atelier which is related to the World Craft Council, it’s about prestige. And then the second aspect is the friction caused by different patrons. Since the 1980s, different individuals commissioned different groups of weavers to weave for them. They buy thread and send it to this group of weavers. They only choose a small group. So this particular longhouse, when I went there were 5 different groups. And there aren’t many of them: one group can have 3 people. So there is one group that belongs to a minister, one that belongs to the Iban Woman Association. Iban Woman Association is meant to help women to work together right… totally the opposite. There’s one from Deputy World Craft Council that has been involved with them since the 1980s, but when I went to the longhouse for the first time, they didn’t even have toilets. So that created the question: selling very expensive, very expensive overseas, but why don’t they even have toilets? Craft exploitation. That’s how I first came into the research actually, by asking that question. It made me want to know why.

O: What have you done with this knowledge?

And then, because I really wanted to create a social lab: I wanted to see what kind of new knowledge can bind them together so they can actually work as a community and I can execute a project for them to see if they are acceptive of different methods to improve their production. To make pua kumbu, you must work in pairs. You cannot work alone to stretch the thread, to do the dyeing. The master weaver said, “I am going to pair people who don’t talk to each other, and make them weave side-by-side.” I said, “If you say so.” She said, “I’m very excited!” I said, “Me too!” So she paired them purposely. Each pair would be given 5kg of thread, to produce 6 pieces of 6’x2’ shawls. On the first day, they came individually to me to say “I don’t want to work with this person.” I said, “Remember? The condition to do this project is to work with each other.” They said, “I can work with other people!” I said, “No, it’s the decision of the master weaver. If you want, you go argue with her, don’t argue with me. I’m just putting in structure.” And they were so angry with me. But then they started to work together. They didn’t talk, that’s fine. But they had to work in pairs. I said, “You have to finish this shawl before my exhibition.” This was in 2016, when I had a big exhibition at UM Gallery. I was displaying about 125 designs. Over 75 countries came to see this exhibition. “You have to finish this within 5 months.” “We don’t talk to each other, how do you expect us to finish within five months?” “Then start talking to each other!” I said. “There’s no membership fee. If you feel comfortable, you stay after this project and we do another one. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can leave.” Not only did I get more weaver, I got them to talk to each other, and they finally understood that all this time they have been manipulated by different patrons.

O: Thank you, Welyne, for your time. See you at Rumah Gareh at Amcorp Mall.

Welyne Jehom is a senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of Malaya, and the head of research at the University Malaya’s Center for Malaysian Indigenous Studies. She is a co-founder of Rumah Gareh Borneo Natural, a Pua Kumbu community project.