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Monday, May 9, 2011

Pantang Iban.(Book Review) - Borneo Research Bulletin | HighBeam Research


Pantang Iban. .(Book Review) - Borneo Research Bulletin | HighBeam Research

Pantang Iban , by Jeroen Franken and Sven Torfinn (1998) Rotterdam: Typography & Other Serious Matters, 160 pages.

The Dutch have been arriving in Borneo for several centuries on various missions ranging from extracting mineral wealth to obtaining scientific knowledge. We shouldn't be too surprised to learn that some have come in the late twentieth century in search of tattoos, as were the authors of this appropriately titled book. (One meaning of pantang in the Iban language is tattoo.) But they were not simply out to document what they saw as Iban "fading tattoo values"--they also had their own bodies tattooed in older designs and tattooed Iban men in exchange. This was their self-described "bejalai adventure through Sarawak," and they traveled to the Skrang and Bangkit rivers in search of men who still knew the old methods.

There are several components to the book. The main text (by Franken) sets down the authors' travel itinerary and experiences, and it is probably the least noteworthy part of the book. The text conforms to the usual romantic travelogue, offering an attempt at "in your face" journalism with a few long,hyphenated adjectives. For example, in describing the pain of being tattooed, Franken calls it a "there's-a-bunch-of-flies-gathering-in-the-hollow-of-my-knee irritation." Perhaps it makes more sense to view it as a Dutchman writing in English, given the Dutch propensity for long adjectival phrases in writing.

Another part of the book is the margin notes in light print. These cover aspects of Iban culture and religion drawn from various sources, including Richards' An Iban-English Dictionary and Sellato's Hornbill and Dragon. Some of these notes are uncredited and may have been derived from the author's own "field" notes. Then, between each chapter are renditions of Iban creation myths adapted from The Sea Dyaks and Other Races of Borneo (edited by Anthony Richards) and Basic Iban Design (by Augustine Anggat Ganjing).

The photograph section takes up about half the book. It is a collection of beautiful black-and-white photographs of tattoos; tattooing, and longhouse life. The photos (by Sven Torfinn) seemed to me to be something the late Hedda Morrison might have taken--if she had been a young male in the 1990s looking for adventure. My favorite is the very first, a two-page spread of six handsome men tattooed from throat to ankle, dressed in ritual garb, and standing on the tanju' of their longhouse. Then there is the one of a young boy, in mid-backward-jump, joining his friends for a cool swim in the river. But in looking through the photos, one is immediately aware, and maybe not a little alarmed, that there are no captions to tell the reader the whos, whens, and wheres. While the text is not meant to be anthropologically authoritative and can be forgiven for these deficiencies, the lack of photo captions seemed the most lacking part of this stylish book.

The final section is devoted to tattoo designs, and these are set down type by type in word, photo, and line drawing. There are two subsections--old-style and new-style designs. The division between the old and the new comes into a bit of a contradiction, however. In this section, Franken says the old-style dates back 250 years, while the new-style is only 100 years old. Yet in the introduction, he cites Ida Pfeiffer's 1852 journey through western Borneo and her claim that the Iban did not tattoo. He also cites the observation by Hose and Shelford in the 1920s that the Iban were "the most extensively tattooed tribe in Borneo." This accords with my own findings in the Dutch colonial archives and suggests that the Iban did not start to tattoo themselves in a serious way until around the turn of the twentieth century, as they ventured further and further into central Borneo in search of forest products, and thereby picking up tattooing from people like the Kayan and Kenyah.

In addition, the buah terong design (or what I know as the bungai terong) finds a place in both sets, which suggests the old/new division is rather arbitrary. The meanings ascribed to the designs are sometimes consistent with what I have heard or read, and sometimes at variance, but that is no real surprise--the Iban are not so homogeneous as we might be tempted to believe. One of the most pleasing parts of this section is that the two Iban artists who drew many of the patterns are given copyright credit.

BORNEO TATTOO:Bungai Terong..CIRCA 1930

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