Meanings behind the woven basket

By Patricia Hului
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HERE IN BORNEO, WE pride ourselves on our colourful traditions, thanks to hundreds of ethnic groups living together.

But perhaps one of the understated traditions we have here is the basketry tradition.

Each ethnic group here in Borneo has its own basketry tradition.

Locally crafted baskets are found everywhere in Borneo’s traditional societies, fulfilling all sorts of practical, daily-life functions.


Sellato giving talk about the social life of a basket at Unimas on June 30.

Sellato giving talk about the social life of a basket at Unimas on June 30.


Dr Bernard Sellato is the editor of Plaited Arts from the Borneo Rainforest, a book which explores the plaiting tradition as the primary creative expression of the peoples of Borneo and complex role of basketry in Borneo societies.

On June 30, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and Friends of the Sarawak Museum (FOSM) organised an illustrated talk by Sellato in which he shared the use of baskets in the social sphere.

Sellato first came to Borneo in 1973 as a geologist and then as an anthropologist.

“In the past, each household know how to make its own basket. There was no professional basket maker,” he said.

He explained that manufacturing plaited objects such as baskets, hats and mats were part of traditional indigenous knowledge.

This traditional knowledge covers which plant resources to use for which object, techniques in processing the fibers and dyes plus decorative motifs.

“This indigenous knowledge can be transmitted vertically – from parents to children – which is within the household or community,” he said. “When this knowledge is transmitting vertically, it tends to be more conservative because the mother will carry on the same habit and the same practices to the children.”

Whereas when this knowledge is transmitted across communities, there would be some changes in the motifs or techniques.

Sellato shared, “Across Borneo, there are variations of technique; some techniques are efficient than others in strengthening the basket.”

Besides technique, other aspects to look at in a basketry tradition are the motifs.

Motifs on plaited objects are unique to each ethnic group and in certain cases have its own meaning.

For instance in the Kenyah community, motifs of humans or tiger on plaited objects such as baby carriers symbolise the bearer’s noble status in the community, whereas simple motifs without any indicates the owner as a commoner.

“A lot of the decorative motifs also refer to religious fears. Some of the motifs refer to myths and others don’t refer to anything.”

Sellato also added that today the motifs are also changing with some being politically- or Christian- inspired.

There is more to a basket than just carrying things as Sellato explained baskets are a material culture that has been around for a long time.

“Material culture is not just about objects, it plays an important role in society because basketry, mats, hats are part of social life,” he said, adding that “They are being used in every corner of people life, they play important role society including social status also in rituals.”

Some weaved baskets are used in special rituals such as name-giving ceremonies for babies.

In some communities, baskets are handed out to guests as farewell gifts.

“Baskets appeared during mourning periods and they are also grave goods for the soul of the deceased to take away either for its journey or when reaching the heavens,” Sellato shared.

Another example of the use of basket is the Lun Dayeh community in which a basket is part an accessory of the women’s traditional garb.

Sellato emphasised that in this modern world, baskets had a role in ethno-cultural identity.

Taking the Orang Ulu community as an example, Sellato said they focused on certain items in material culture to sustain their culture and identities.

“Objects are symbol of cultural identities. It is important for these communities to know who they are and how to position themselves in modern world in a multi-cultural society,” he explained.

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