Sarawak has a rich tradition of arts and crafts. Each one of the State’s 27 ethnic groups has its own material culture and craft traditions. Handicrafts from Sarawak have a diverse range of motifs and designs, often inspired by the natural environment.
Visitors to Kuching can see a wide variety of crafts on display at the handicraft shops in the heritage district of Main Bazaar. These include orang ulu beadwork, Bidayuh mats, Iban pua kumbu blankets, bark cloths, wood carvings, baskets, ironwork and Sarawak pottery.
The Two Styles of Sarawak Pottery
There are two distinct types of pottery in Sarawak – each with its history and techniques.
The most common type is Chinese style, wheel-thrown pottery. Most of the ceramics and pots found in shops in Sarawak are from this style. There are several potteries located in the outskirts of Kuching that produce a wide range of pots. Kuching’s pottery industry can be traced back to the mid-19th Century when Teochew artisans arrived in Sarawak and set up family-run pottery businesses to cater for the local market.
The second category is indigenous pottery produced by native tribes such as the Kelabit and Iban using the hand-mould method. Instead of using a wheel, native artisans craft pots from lumps or coils of clay. They shape the pot by holding a roundish stone on the inside and smoothing the clay by hand on the outside. Wooden paddles or beaters are then used to smooth and further shape the pot. Traditionally potters of this local style were mostly women. The pots are usually round in shape and relatively small in size.
According to the University of Malaya, pottery of this type has been found in archaeological excavations in Sarawak alongside other cultural materials up to one thousand years old.
Nowadays it is not so easy to find hand-moulded pots in Sarawak as there are very few artisans that still practice what is sadly becoming a dying art.
However, one master of this art is Iban potter Andah anak Lembang from Batang Ai in Sri Aman Division.
Master Craftsman Andah anak Lembang – The Last Iban Potter?
Andah anak Lembang was born in 1958 in Nanga Sumpa, Batang Ai. He started making pots when he was 15 years old and was taught by his mother, Chandi anak Lupuh. Today he is recognised as a skilled craftsman and perhaps the last Iban potter in Sarawak who makes traditional pots using old-age techniques.
Andah was officially recognised by the government in 2006 when he was named as an adiguru (master craftsperson) by Kraftangan Malaysia (The Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation).
Collecting Clay To Crafting The Finished Pot
There are several steps in the traditional pottery production process – collecting the clay, forming the pot, decoration, firing and finishing.
Andah collects clay from an area upriver of Nanga Sumpa Longhouse. This site has been a source of clay for many generations. He transports it back to the longhouse, divides it into small clumps and lets it dry for a few days. He then processes the powdery clay by sieving it and removing large pieces and imperfections. What remains is mixed with water and left for a day or so.
The process of forming the pot begins with Andah taking a lump of the wet clay and pounding it to remove any air bubbles. He then shapes the clay with a wooden beater on the outside whilst holding a stone on the inside. He inserts a rattan ring in the top of the pot to retain a round shape. Andah holds the pot on his lap whilst constantly shaping it, turning it around and patting it with the wooden paddle until the pot is round.
The design is added by tapping the pot with a wooden tool carved with the required motif. The motifs are often floral designs such as the bunga terung (eggplant flower). It takes about one hour to make a pot. Once complete the pot is left to dry for around a week.
In the past Andah would fire his pots in an open fire. A few years back he was given an electric kiln by the government so nowadays he uses this to fire the pots. The pots are brown or black in colour and are finished by adding a rattan handle.
Where Can You Buy Traditional Iban Pots
Visitors who go on one of Borneo Adventure’s tours to Nanga Sumpa can buy pots directly from Andah or his family. He also occasionally sells pots at craft fairs in Kuching organised by the Sarawak Craft Council or Kraftangan Malaysia.
Borneo Adventure usually keeps a few pots in our Kuching office. You can also place orders by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will then inform Andah and he will make your pots. We collect the pots from the longhouse and bring them to Kuching. Please note the whole process can take a few weeks. The price depends on the size of the pot and ranges from RM 60 to RM 150 per piece.