Dayak Ikat Art in Borneo

Weaving for a cause

By: Gregory McCann

It all starts with a dream in a sleeping Dayak woman in West Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo. Sometimes a Tomistoma crocodile emerges from the misty morning waters of Danau Sentarum, while other times it is the highly sought-after and nearly extinct in the wild Asian Arowana fish disappearing into the depths of the lake like a drowning red flame.

Sometimes she will dream of a family of gibbons or hornbills or even pythons, but nearly always she envisions her ancestors—hunters, warriors, elders, and leaders of the ethnic Dayak indigenous groups of Borneo. But to traditional Ikat art weavers in this region, dreams aren’t passing subconscious visions and scenes, but meaningful mementos based on their cultural and environmental milieu. And like nearly all things traditional and natural in Borneo and Southeast Asia, it is fast-disappearing.

With help from the NGO People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF), indigenous Dayak women have launched an initiative to revive the Ikat weaving art in an effort that is aimed at keeping a cultural heritage alive, and in the process, helping sustain a traditional community. The Dayak people, long associated with head-hunting and jungle-dwelling, have rich traditions, and none more so than the dazzling Ikat weavings that their women they create.

As they are based on dreams, every Ikat weaving contains a story, and when those lucky enough to obtain one of these beautiful tapestries—all of which are colored with natural dyes—hang it in their home or office, they are paying homage to an animist tradition that continues to hang on despite conversion to Islam and Christianity. An Ikat weaving is a reflection of ancient times when the island of Borneo was smothered in steaming jungle and when battles raged between rival tribes and heads were cut and saved to propitiate the spirits so that rains would come and diseases would be cured; indeed, freshly cut “head festivals” were held for these very reasons.

So what exactly is happening on the ground in West Kalimantan today? PRCF supports integrated cooperatives with 600 Dayak women who now form a self-sufficient organization. Their technique is known as ‘double backstroke’ weaving, which involves two-directional process using the warp and weft yarns that give the product its unique composition. The products are dazzling tapestries of interlocked spirits, warriors and animals soaked in reds, oranges, and blues and would be the envy of anyone with even a mildly appreciative eye for art and beauty. (And I can count myself among the fortunate who hangs one from his office wall in Taiwan).

Self-sufficient communities are also less likely to engage in illegal activities, such as wildlife poaching and illegal logging. Therefore, at its best—and this does seem to be the direction things are heading in—traditional Ikat weavings can help protect ecosystems that support Tomistoma crocodiles, Asian Arowanas, Helmeted Hornbills, Mueller’s gibbons, Sunda Clouded Leopards, and the entire exotic community of wildlife that Borneo’s threatened forests still support.

In a sense, dreams of the past can create the dreams of the future, one of healthy ecosystems stocked with all the wildlife that should be there, in a sprawling landscape dotted with healthy communities who can plan their lives and spend their time in the way that suits them best. And when Covid-19 has been tackled and international travel can resume once again, the ecotourists who venture out to this corner of West Kalimantan might take home with them artwork that tells a story from another world.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He teaches in Taiwan and is involved in conservation projects with PRCF in Sumatra and in Cambodia.

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.