Jun 2016 - Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu - The Sacred Journey

Malaysia has a rich and varied arts and crafts heritage, which serves to effectively showcase the multi-cultural makeup of its population. The Malaysian Culture Group recently had the chance to visit one such exposition of native Malaysian art, a fascinating textile exhibition titled Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu –the Sacred Journey. The exhibit is on display at the UM Art Gallery housed on the fifth level of the Chancellery building locate on the lush, sprawling University of Malaya campus.

The passionate and enthusiastic curator and promoter of the exhibit, Welyne Jehom welcomed our group and quickly got down to business. She soon went on to explain the intricacies of the creation of each displayed Pua Kumbu, the sacred ceremonial textile woven by the Iban tribal women of Rumah Gareh in Sarawak.


Rumah Gareh is an indigenous Longhouse dwelling located deep in the wilds of Sarawak. Welyne has undertaken the arduous nine-hour journey to get to the Longhouse many times as she fervently believes that this unique art form, native to the Iban people of Sarawak deserves to be preserved before it disappears.


The term ‘Pua’ translates as a blanket while the phrase ‘kumbu’ means to cover. The skillful Iban women weavers (their tribe includes a couple of men now) craft each Pua using cotton that is cultivated alongside their staple rice crop. Using natural, locally sourced vegetable dyes like indigo and others, the women intricately weave the sacred ceremonial blankets. These blankets sport designs that have their origins in individual dreams, and experience as well the surrounding worlds of nature and spirits.

Many of the Pua on display at the gallery are ancient while some even date back over hundred years though their colors and designs have endured the ravages of time and even careless neglect. Welyne, in fact, disclosed to us that she had unearthed some of the works from the recesses of cupboards at the Longhouse where they had been stored unused for years.


Each Pua is unique and has its distinctive identity and hence it represents the intellectual property of its creator. Welyne and her team have used technology extensively to help visitors understand and appreciate the painstaking, lengthy process involved in the creation of each Pua Kumbu.


These technical tools include a delightful and innovative interactive app that can be downloaded and installed on a visitor’s smartphone by way of a QR code and informative audio-visual displays.

Aside from technology, Welyne has also encouraged the weavers to expand the utility of the Pua Kumbu. The Pua is no longer merely a ceremonial blanket, but the hand-woven textile has now been used to create shawls, throws, clothing and accessories such as handbags and footwear. Welyne hopes that these efforts will help to raise the profile of the Pua Kumbu while raising much-needed funds for the creators of this ancient art.


Aside from the exhibits at the showing, which are available for sale, Weylne also offers various Pua Kumbu creations at her store cum office located around the corner from the exhibition rooms. Our MCG lot couldn’t resist the stunning Pua creations and shopped up a storm. Weylne is headed to Rumah Gareh once again on the 4th of August and is willing take visitors along if you are keen to visit and view the creation of the Pua Kumbu at close quarters. Do get in touch with Michelle Pease for more information.

Written by Anjeeta Nayar. Pictures by  Michelle Pease.