Adapting Art to Tell Stories of Sabah

loading Traditional motifs on modern jewellery.

Tamu Tamu Collective injects tradition into modern craftwork.

Modern drawstring bags made out of traditional Rungus fabric, old-fashioned beads paired with lava rocks to become a sassy bracelet, or perhaps, tattoo motifs etched on stylish brass jewellery.

These are some of Tamu Tamu Collective’s eclectic collection of modern crafts that take old heritage traditions of Sabah and breathe young life into them.

This collective comprises eight young Sabahan artisans who make contemporary crafts such as wire jewellery and streetwear – but with a difference. Their items deftly incorporate elements of their heritage as a way to assert their unique identity and preserve old stories.

Going beyond just adapting heritage crafts for modern use, they merge these traditional elements into their own products to make something new.

Jeremy Jesse Joy.

“Of course we have to preserve traditional crafts as they are part of our identity, but at the same time, we can take them and turn them into something new,” says the collective’s leader, Jesse Jeremy Joy, 25, a freelance graphic designer.

His own craft is streetwear, under his label Jetsetter Clothing which he set up in 2013 to produce t-shirts and other merchandise, like bags. He also makes mixed-media collectibles such as fridge magnets, under the label All Things Nice.

While he has been making these items for years, it was only recently that he started to learn about the cultures of his homeland. He bought a piece of Rungus textile last year, and learnt its stories from its woman weaver.

Although it pained him to cut up the beautiful piece, he did want to use it in a modern way. And so he cut out small pieces to be made into pockets for his ultramodern streetwear, modern tote bags and drawstring bags.

Jesse also makes bracelets out of the traditional carnelian beads of the Rungus and Lotud people, who call them “batu akik”, paired with lava rocks for a modern touch. “The incorporation of traditional elements is our way of telling stories like how the tapestry was made, or who made it and why it was made,” he says. “Having them on t-shirts or bracelets makes them current and relevant, especially to youngsters.”

A typically Borneo design on stylish wire jewellery.

Rungus fabric pockets on modern T-shirts.

Other members in the collective do the same. For instance, Adam Kitingan, under his label Tukang, has been researching and incorporating North Borneo’s traditional tattoo motifs into his line of brass jewellery, and has even compiled a booklet on these motifs.

Haizum Alban of Bikin uses traditional motifs in copper wire jewellery, while Imelda and June Isabel Vitales of Pink Dinosaur make cotton bags with textiles that had once been traditional embroidered headgear for men.

They are all in their 20s, and reflect a renewed enthusiasm in Borneo Malaysia among the young to seek out their stories, spurred perhaps by national politics that has thrust this half of Malaysia into the political limelight.

As people are reminded of their political rights and histories, they also gain a stronger interest in the heritage that makes them unique. This has sparked many projects in heritage conservation and story-telling. And in the youthful hands of people like Jesse, in crafts as well.

Tamu Tamu Collective was set up in 2015 when Jesse was invited to take part in the hugely popular Art for Grabs event in KL. “I thought it would be great to go to KL as a collective,” he says. They chose this evocative name because “tamu”, which means a farmer’s market in Sabah, is a recognisable term in their state. The colourful tamu are tourist attractions in their own right – both as a place to trade, as well as a place for meeting friends.

Tamu Tamu Collective has the same vibe: it’s a collective for trade and also for friendship, for learning and for teaching. Their crafts range from beadwork to embroidery, sewing, wood, brass and metal work. This includes wire-wrapped jewellery with semi-precious stones and beads, clay jewellery, bags and plushies, brass jewellery and beadwork.

Most of them incorporate some element of traditional crafts. “Local crafts have a value of their own but traditional crafts especially so, because the skills and stories have been passed down from one generation to another,” Jesse says. “Supporting and promoting local crafts will keep these skills and stories alive.”

Right now, they hold a couple of crafts markets in cafés in Kota Kinabalu twice a month, and are in discussions to place their products in various stores in Sabah. Jesse says they hope, as a collective, to be able to bring their crafts and stories to a wider audience, including West Malaysians. To him, Tamu Tamu Collective is an invaluable opportunity to tell the stories of Sabah, especially to Malaysians from the peninsula who have little exposure to their cultures.

“Sabah's stories are easily told through our arts and crafts,” he says.

Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.

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