One day in the summer of 1969 my late brother Philip drove home in his latest second-hand car. It was a dark blue 1964 Triumph Herald 1200 convertible like the one in the picture on the left below. I was envious. He had a regular job but I was an impoverished student. My truly dreadful and exquisitely uncool 1959 Renault Dauphine, bought for £30, had recently and irrevocably reached the end of the line. If you look at the picture on the right below, showing a very much better Dauphine than mine, you might be able to see the reason for my envy.
Philip spent most of the day showing the Herald’s finer points to me. But when he got to the part where he demonstrated how to stow the convertible’s hood (or soft-top) into the compartment where it was supposed to lie flat, he encountered a problem. The hood wouldn’t stow. There was a blockage. We investigated, and pulled out from the recess a folded length of cloth. Then the hood fitted perfectly into its recess and was neatly covered by the tonneau cover.
Perhaps because he was so excited by his new car, or perhaps because he had little interest in the kinds of curiosities and oddities which always fascinated me, Philip was very happy for me to take ownership the cloth. I adopted it as a bedcover for my single bed, upon which it fitted perfectly. That summer I was preparing to leave for a year as an exchange student at Union College, Schenectady, NY, and I decided (for reasons which now escape me) to include it among the essential items to be shipped to the USA. In the dorm there, I used it sometimes as a bedcover and sometimes as wall hanging opposite the end of my bed. I became very familiar with the cloth and its busy, strange and rather disturbing images.
In 1974 I ended my single-bed days and the cloth was relegated to a store cupboard, a move greatly approved by my new wife. It has remained out of sight ever since, and it was only a year or so ago that I remembered about it and started to wonder once again what on earth it was. I got it out and immersed myself in a few hours of internet searching to see if I could find anything which might point me towards an identification. What I discovered was quite remarkable, possibly even more remarkable than finding an object such as this stuffed into the back of a Triumph Herald.
Here is a picture of the cloth. See what I mean about disturbing?
It turns out that this length of patterned fabric is a pua kumbu, or ritual cloth, one of the most important cultural artefacts produced by the Iban people of Sarawak, the northern region of the island of Borneo, part of Malaysia.
“A pua kumbu is a traditional tribal textile woven in longhouses by the women of Borneo. They have great value, playing an important role in tribal culture… unique to the Iban is the impact that dreams have in the creation of pua kumbu. Each unique pua design is created from a vast repertoire of individual motifs whose meanings are combined to produce patterns and stories of ritual and spiritual power. Traditionally, the weaving goddess Kumang gives the designs and patterns to the weaver through dreams. Pua kumbu are known as Woven Dreams! Typically lots of symbolic elements are included in the design. Many are woven to play a specific role in celebrations and ritual ceremonies… Master weavers were held in great esteem and only they were allowed to use certain powerful motifs.” (Quoted from here)
The most symbolically powerful pua kumbu are those which depict human figures – like mine. In the days not so long ago when the Iban tribes were headhunters, the severed heads of defeated enemies were displayed on certain pua, and they were used as shrouds for bodies.
My pua kumbu is made of cotton, spun, dyed and woven by hand using the ikat technique, which is related to tie-dyeing but much more complex. It shows three large and well-endowed human figures standing between complex and detailed symbolic patterns. It measures about 190 by 104 cms (75 by 41 inches) and is woven in two panels which are sewn together, which is the usual method of construction. It seems that many of these cloths have end fringes and side borders, but these are not present in my example. But as far as I can tell, the selvedges have not had borders attached to them at any time, so presumably this particular specimen was made without borders.
Since it was far from new when discovered in 1969, I’m confident in saying that it dates at least from the middle of the 20th century or earlier. This seems to make it quite an early example.
These days the manufacture of pua kumbu is becoming industrialised and the cloths are used for the production of clothes and bags for tourists. But early examples are scarce and collectable. The wonder of the internet enabled me to identify two world-class pua kumbu collectors. I sent them emails and photographs, and, as so often happens, to my constant astonishment, they both replied courteously and helpfully to my ignorant and naïve enquiries. I quote below (with permission) some of their comments:
“I’d say the piece is Baleh [i.e. from the Baleh region of Sarawak] . . . it would appear to be handspun cotton on the coarse side and native dyes. Also the low Length to Width ratio. The squiggly creatures are ripung which is a kind of stubby python. It relates to Pau, the head of Kumang’s longhouse in the Gelong. It conjures up stories about Kumang, which relate to the other figures.”
So – it’s an interesting and unusual object, with potential to bring into my semi-detached suburban home a distinct flavour of magic, ritual, symbolism, strangeness, violence, danger. It’s rare. It’s edgy. But do I want to keep it?
Not really. It’s been with me for a very long time, but the fact that it has been stored away since the end of my single-bed days indicates that the pua kumbu isn’t really to my taste and doesn’t really fit in well with all the other stuff in the house. I might as well admit that I find I’m generally happier and more comfortable viewing ethnographic objects in a museum setting rather than choosing to have them as domestic décor – except of course for Turkmen rugs, which I’ll have anywhere.
I find in fact that I don’t have a sentimental or aesthetic attachment to the pua kumbu, so I would really quite like to move it on. But that’s easier said than done. It doesn’t seem to want to leave me.
I was hoping that one or other (or preferably both) of my two world-class experts would express an interest in buying it from me at an enormous price. But no. They both sent me pictures of similar objects in their collections which even I as a total novice could see easily were of enormously better quality and complexity and in vastly better condition than my example. No way would they want to own mine.
Thinking about the best market in which to expose a pua kumbu for sale, I quickly dismissed local auction houses and dealers – they wouldn’t know how to catalogue or value such an obscure and unusual piece, and wouldn’t be in a position to attract knowledgeable buyers. Upmarket auctioneers were also out because I knew that the piece wouldn’t reach the minimum value threshold set by the big players.
The next and obvious choice was eBay. A pua kumbu is precisely the kind of object for which eBay is ideally suited – it provides exposure to all the specialist collectors in the world who are looking for rare and obscure objects, and a forum to generate genuine and fierce competition between bidders. An object made of fabric is perfect to sell, because it’s lightweight and easy to pack and post anywhere in the world. By contrast, I wouldn’t sell a wardrobe on eBay, regardless of how rare and obscure it might be.
But I was wrong. No bids at all on eBay, even with a low starting price. I have a theory about the reason for this. It might simply be that my pua kumbu is too rare and obscure. It has some minor condition issues: although it’s complete and undamaged, the original natural dyes have faded, and there is some staining (human blood??) in a few places. It was rather dirty when it came into my possession nearly 50 years ago and I have never attempted to wash it – so it probably needs a good clean and some specialist conservation.
And there’s the problem. The two world-class collectors who I found online might well be the only collectors of this type of item, or two out of a very small group. These collectors want the best specimens and they want condition to be perfect. From their point of view, my piece is sub-standard, so they don’t want to buy it. But neither does anyone else because there isn’t an established market for pua kumbu as there is for rugs or pots or books or cabbage patch dolls. Sometimes, an object is too rare to have any value. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true.
Having failed to sell my precious but valueless pua kumbu, I next decided to give it away. I wrote to the National Museum of Scotland here in Edinburgh, which boasts an outstanding collection of objects from “world cultures”. Here’s the response from a senior curator:
“I have considered this object carefully in relation to the existing collection and the availability of storage. We do have examples of this type of cloth already in the collection. On this occasion, I therefore have to decline your kind offer.”
It’s an understandable answer, but it gets me no further forward. I still have the pua kumbu, and it still resides safely on a high shelf in the cupboard in the spare bedroom. It will probably be sitting there when the clearance people come to empty the house of its residual contents after Frances and I have departed and after the children and grandchildren have had their pick of what’s left. Let’s hope it will be a nice surprise for its next owner, and that he or she will take as much pleasure and interest from it as I have done, albeit sporadically, for almost fifty years. Random, yes, but treasure, no.