BY JEANNE GOLLY
Activist and designer Edric Ong uses design to improve human conditions.
Designer Edric Ong came to Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in 1988 to run a natural-dying workshop for Iban weavers. It was the beginning of a more than 20-year collaboration to revive the exquisite pua kumbu ikats of Borneo.
Mr. Ong remembers that attendees Bangie anak Embol and her mother seemed transfixed with the amazing natural-dye results of other weavers. The two women came back a year later to show him samples of what they had woven using natural dyes, silk yarn, and the back-strap loom. Ong admits that they blew him away with the mastery of their silk pua kumbu weavings.
The collaboration born that day between textile, fashion, and craft designer Edric Ong and Bangie has produced a number of life-improving results for the Iban people: A cooperative contributing financially to the well-being of the 35 families in their longhouse; new respect and more harmonious communal living; preservation of Iban cultural heritage; and promotion of ecological sustainability through the use of natural dyes.
An additional positive effect: Bangie and her fellow weavers let go of the many pattern restrictions their old animist rituals had placed on them for centuries—rituals, for instance, like the Ngar ceremony celebrating the mordanting of their threads and symbolically provoking the community’s men to launch head-hunting raids. Today the weavers, some of whom are men, perform the Ngar ceremony for peace, not war.
The weavers’ energies are directed toward gorgeous expression of their artistic talents and adapting the deep cultural roots of their craft. In their cloth, they celebrate their rain-forests’ grandeur, the sun and moon’s life-giving forces, and the majestic “Tree of Life” represented in their culture by the Sago Palm. In depicting the palm, they show what naturally occurs after the adult palm bursts forth with its beautiful mast of white flowers— it dies back so that younger palms may grow up and show their own flamboyance.
One can see in the spirals, curls, and other motifs woven into the silk cloth what can be witnessed firsthand on a boat trip along Borneo’s rivers: densely intertwined trees, branches, and roots as well as ripples of water reflecting the sunlight filtered through leafy canopies. The fluid, tone-on-tone play of light and shadow comes through in the astonishingly complex patterns of pua kumbu.
In 1998 UNESCO, recognizing Bangie and her mother for the beauty of their naturally dyed silk ikats and their dedication to amity and peacefulness, declared them joint winners of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts, an international competition that brought considerable honor to them and their extended families. Also recognized as a National Craft Teacher, Bangie travels throughout Malaysia to teach pua kumbu, and around the world to accept other countries’ textile prizes.
Edric Ong is sixth-generation Chinese born in Sarawak and as such is a member of Malaysia’s large Peranakan Chinese community. Since the time of the 19th-century Brooke Rajahs the Ong family has been known for its community leadership and appreciation of art, music, and literature. Young Edric grew up surrounded by family heirlooms and traveled with his father, Director of Inland Fisheries, to the highlands where he stayed in Iban and Bidayuh longhouses.
His early appreciation of “nice things” led him to study architecture at the University of Singapore and was the beginning of his love for creating original living environments distinguished by refined forms, colors, and perspectives. Branching out into the design and production of fashion apparel, accessories, textiles and crafts is, he says, a natural extension that enables him to explore different media in his work.
Edric also reports that community empowerment fuels his drive to “enrich cultures and humanity by creating awareness, sparking revivals of endangered traditions, and contemporizing the traditional designs.” He extends the reach of his practice to a global level with his work with the World Eco Fiber and Textile Forum, the ASEAN Handicraft Promotion and Development Association, the jury of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts and UNESCO’s panel on Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As in much of the world, lifestyle and educational shifts make the future of pua kumbu weaving uncertain, Edric and Bangie are devoted to continuing to guide weavers in what they love to do—express artistry, build community, and preserve culture as well as the environment.
For more on Edric Ong, please see www.edricong.com.