Curly Kelawit: Warisan Orang Ulu


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Figure 1: Dragon by Tusau Padan, Wan Ullok Collection ©Louise Macul

By Louise M Macul

THROUGHOUT much of Sarawak, some images decorate walls in businesses, paintings on longhouse verandas, and motifs on commercial goods such as t-shirts and as part of business logos.

High and low, you can find these images and think “uniquely Borneo”. They all look similar: curly tendrils, intertwined vines, abstract dogs, dragons and hornbills often covering entire surfaces.


The designs are unique to Borneo; some are traditional, and some have a modern flair. Much of what we see has its roots in tattoo designs like the bunga terung, semawa, and kala bejanang, which plants and animals inspire. Other designs are found in the carvings of kelireng and wood panels found on Levels 4 and 5 of the Borneo Cultures Museum.

However, many others are linked to an ancient Orang Ulu tradition of painting and carving. In the unique method of painting lies long-held indigenous knowledge—part of the intangible heritage of the Orang Ulu people. How are these paintings made? Let us take a closer look at their creation.

Although Orang Ulu groups may have slightly different styles, they all share the following elements in their paintings:

  • Painting technique
  • Overall design and composition
  • The use of space
  • Basic motifs and decorative elements
  • Colour

The painting technique is where the skill and tradition lie. Like carving where the wood is removed to show the figure or image, here the background is painted to reveal the motif. Therefore, motifs are made “in relief”.

Figure 2: Relief carving with painting below. Uma Bawang ©Louise Macul

After the board or surface is painted all one colour, the following steps are taken:

  • The motif and designs are drawn in pencil.
Figure 3: Step 1 — draw motif ©Louise Macul
  • All the space outside of the motif and designs is painted another colour.
Figure 4: Step 2 — colour in background to motif. Image based on a Berawan painting. © Louise Macul
  • Extra highlighting colours are then added

The most common overall composition or design is an arrangement of the motif at the centre of the painting with interconnected decorative elements surrounding it. The picture is balanced and symmetrical. The motif in the centre and tendrils called kelawit extend from the central motif.

Figure 5: Notice balance and symmetry of design. Painting by Anyi Mukak. Uma Bawang Asap Apau Kayan. ©Louise Macul

Another feature of the paintings is the use of space. In traditional paintings, the entire surface seems to be covered. The motif is central, and curly kelawit and other small decorations fill in empty spaces.

If you look carefully, you will notice there are no large empty spaces in Orang Ulu paintings. There are also no straight lines! The kelawit are a distinctive feature of the paintings. They could be inspired by the natural environment filled with vines, creepers and fern sprouts.

It is in the design of the kelawit where the Orang Ulu groups show their differences. Some are long, slender, and very curly (Kenyah), some are short like a thorn (Berawan), and others are somewhere in between (Kayan, Kejaman). Another use of space is that wall paintings are not ‘framed’; they can extend beyond the edge of a wall as if a run-away kelawit is looking for something to attach to.

The subject of the motifs is pretty standard: a tree of life, dragons, dogs, human-like kelunan. Long ago, motifs had a function. They could be found on walls, baby carriers, hats, shields and other items such as sape. The motifs would indicate the status of the owner.

Figure 6: Guardian figure at Segu Bungalow, Kuching painted by Berawan from Long Jegan. ©Louise Macul

Today, in some longhouses, you may find floor to ceiling paintings on a veranda illustrating folktales. Other paintings are more simple and purely decorative. The old motifs, re-configured, are a legacy from the Orang Ulu and are still used today but have different meanings from the old beliefs. In the Borneo Cultures Museum, you can search for a few artefacts are decorated with traditional paintings. Paintings were not just meant for walls!

Traditionally, before enamel and acrylic paint and coloured markers found their way into the ulu (interiors), the colours of the paintings came from natural pigments. Surprisingly, these colours are more common in modern paintings than new hues and shades found on a today’s colour wheel.

Here are the traditional pigments:
Black—arang (charcoal)
White—kapur (lime)
Red—buah chat, Bixa orellana (annatto) seed extract
Yellow—kunyit, Curcuma longa (turmeric)
Green—keladi, Dioscorea (yam leaves)
Blue—akar tarum, Marsdenia tinctoria (indigo)

Due to the climate, termites, and fires, very few old paintings are left in the ulu.

However, the painting tradition, including its authentic process, is still alive. A young Sebop man from Ulu Tinjar is doing just that.

New materials may be used as traditions grow and change over time. What is essential is that the unique method of creating these paintings is kept alive. It is a legacy of the Orang Ulu people and maintains a link to their ancestors. Those of us who are not Orang Ulu can still appreciate the paintings and the tradition as “art”. The meanings of the motifs may be different for us today.

Still, the significance of the overall design, born from the rainforest environment, remains the same. The authentic traditional paintings remind us of the deep connection between Sarawak’s people, their culture, and their environment. The knowledge in this article does not belong to me. It belongs to the people of Sarawak who carry on and share traditional knowledge. Warisan Orang Ulu, warisan Sarawak.

Louise Macul is a doctoral candidate in the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester (UK). She lives in Kuching and is a founding member of FoSM (2012).

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.