Iban craftsman James mesmerises with local motif on St. Francis Church baptismal font

Baptismal Font at Saint Francis Church Bandar Riyal Kota Samarahan crafted by James. Photo source: St. Francis Church, Kota Samarahan.

By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, June 16: It is hard not to notice the mesmerisingly beautiful baptismal font with its unique local native motif and grapefruit design at the entrance of Saint Francis Anglican Church in Bandar Riyal, Kota Samarahan, when attending a service.

Upon inquiry, Saint Francis Church priest-in-charge, Reverend Kelvin Jawa, revealed that the local motifs imprinted on the font were the work of an Iban craftsman named James Paul Nuing.


Hailing from Betong, the 64-year-old retired civil servant James told ayakDaily that despite crafting for as long as he could remember, he had the inspiration for St. Francis’s baptismal font from the internet.

“I did a lot of research for that, but the idea of making the baptismal font at St Francis was inspired by the church in Canada. Of course, I made the sculpture’s design myself” revealed James further.

“As for the baptismal font, it is made of a good timber called ‘kayu mangeris’ (wood from tapang tree) which is from the koompassia excels species, as well as other unique crafts I did for the church, notably in St. Nicholas Church’s altar in Bandar Baru Samariang and some works at St. Augustine Church, Betong were made of ‘belian’ wood.

“I hoped my work for the churches and others is like the ecclesiastical meaning of the imprinted grapefruit I crafted on the fonts and altar, which, in the Bible, symbolises God’s abundant blessings and provision in our lives,” said James.

Craftsman James showing his ‘Pinggai Raja’ – An intricate local motif design wooden kenyalang plate for offerings.

James, whose craft skills were inspired by his late grandfather, who is also his icon, felt good about commissioning his work for the churches as he received blessings from the church authorities.

He shared that when making an altar for a church, he is grateful that it was for the church’s sanctuary.

According to James, his initial challenge in his work came when he crafted his own ‘terabai’—a wooden shield for his ‘ngajat’ (Iban warrior dance) class—since it was hard to find people selling them at that time.

“But the challenge as a craftsman came when the former Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang commissioned me to design Iban motifs on two doors of his new 2012,” said James.

He shared that, aside from these challenges, his patience often wore thin because crafting is demanding work, and he would resume after taking sufficient rest.

“To motivate myself, I always recalled my grandfather and his works at St. Augustine Church in Betong, who had his craft imprinted on the beam of the church since 1921. It was a century-old work,” added James.

A local motif imprinted on a wooden beam structure by James’ grandfather at St Augustine Church Betong. Photo courtesy of James Paul Nuing,

Like any other craftsman, James lamented that financial constraints are always a significant obstacle, as materials and equipment are not cheap.

James is optimistic that crafts made by people like him will continue, despite not currently having an apprentice to assist him. He hopes that his second eldest son, who is still studying, will carry on his legacy.

He said he does not mind sharing his knowledge, even though he continues to learn and improve his skills.

“I had a dream that someone made a book about my works and techniques as this would be a pride for me as a reference for future generations in Iban motifs and designs,” he said.

Those interested in commissioning James for woodcarving works may contact James at 014-592 7007 for further information. –DayakDaily

An intricate design of a wooden Kenyalang bird crafted by James.
A traditional wood casing with a local motif design by James.
An intricate local motif designed on a wooden plate by James.
A wooden pillar ‘engkaramba’ made by James.