Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Variation as Norm: Names, Meanings, and Referents in Borneo Basketry Decoration

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Variation as Norm: Names, Meanings, and Referents in Borneo Basketry Decoration

Article excerpt


Studies in material culture, and especially technology, underwent a revival of sorts in the 1980s, followed by a shift in focus, based on a view of objects as full-fledged agents with a "social life" of their own (see Appadurai 1986, Gell 1998), toward the social and cognitive processes behind the object (see, e.g., Sillitoe 1998, Sefa Dei et al. 2000, Ellen & Harris 2000, Ingold 2001). In the context of "ethnic" material productions, however, it appears that studies, often remaining at the descriptive stage, have neglected the underlying, potentially complex, relations between a motif or pattern, the way it is named, the meaning of this name, and what it denotes, both as an immediate representation and as a vector of metaphorical, symbolic, mythological, or religious referents.

Regarding Borneo, a lingering--and, conceivably, rather pointless--debate, centered on the textiles of the Iban of Sarawak, has been taking place over the relation between decorative patterns, their names, meanings, and cultural or symbolic referents. But the field of Iban textiles is a very narrow one: a single, though numerous, ethnic group--despite internal variation--and a single medium, textiles, a flat surface with its specific technical constraints. In this paper, I would like to expand this discussion by moving it to the field of basketry. Indeed, the decorated plaitwork of Borneo unlocks a much broader field of investigation: firstly, in terms of the wide array of techniques and combinations of techniques used, the variety of forms created, in which tri-dimensionality is prominent, and the range of functions fulfilled, from the most trivial to the highly religious; and secondly, in an island three times the size of the United Kingdom, in terms of the scores of different ethnic groups and cultural contexts examined, which allows for fruitful comparative analyses. In such a field, studies focused on decoration may further our understanding of the questions of names, meanings, and references, as well as of nuance and variability.

Basketry in Borneo

Basketry, this "humblest of crafts" (Sentance 2001), which "we do not hold in high esteem" (Levi-Strauss 1993), certainly reaches back in the history of mankind for at least 10,000 years (Adovasio 1977), and probably much longer. In Borneo, it is attested in archaeological layers dating back to a few centuries B.C. (Cameron 2016)--which does not preclude the production of some forms of plaitwork by hunter-gatherer peoples who had lived there from at least 50,000 B.C.

The archaeological literature offers a confusing terminology whereby "basketry" and "matting" are commonly viewed as two subclasses of "textiles," while ethnographic works widely diverge in their technical definitions of "basketry"--not to mention a rather indiscriminate use of the terms "plaiting" and "weaving." I adhere here to Adovasio's 1977 broad definition of basketry, applied to various kinds of items: "in addition to rigid and semi-rigid containers, matting, and bags, it embraces forms such as fish traps, hats, and cradles..." And I use here "basketry" and "plaitwork" as equivalent, all-encompassing terms to cover various techniques, such as plaiting proper, twining, coiling, braiding, and even those using a frame--but exclusive of cloth weaving. "Southeast Asia," Ruth Barnes (1993) wrote, "is one of the [world's] most prolific areas for the production of basketry. Hardly a technique for interlacing fibre in basketry has been invented that is not found in this region, and many areas have developed a particular quality and perfection [...] Yet surprisingly enough, the making of baskets and their function and meaning in Southeast Asian communities have not been given much attention in recent studies."

Indeed, few significant works deal with Southeast Asian basketry: Mason's major work (1908) on the Malay peninsula, Loeber (1902) and Jasper and Pirngadie (1912) and, later, Barnes (1993) on the Indonesian archipelago, and Lane (1986) and Capistrano-Baker et al. …

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