Borneo’s Tribal Punks

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by Marco Ferrarese
Roads & Kingdoms

I’m standing inside a sun-scorched country house contemplating images of a rural revolution while cattle graze outside the window. The pictures are etched on A3-sized posters hanging from the walls: dozens of black figures printed on multicolored paper. I lock onto a portrait of a Kadazan-Dusun woman in a conical paddy hat. She looks ahead proudly with pursed lips; long, beaded earrings hanging from her ears. Her hands are placed before her chest to emphasize an intricate, hand-woven beaded necklace. Over the tip of her hat, instead of the iconic “punk’s not dead,” the artist has penned “Bead’s Not Dead” in curling letters.

“Here in Sabah, the tribal handicraft industry is still very much alive,” says Rizo Leong, 31, anticipating my question. We’re in his home studio in the mountain village of Ranau, located in Malaysian Sabah, the northernmost region of Borneo (the world’s third largest island, shared by Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). “Because of the trinkets sold by Malaysia’s Tourism Department, the local artisanal trade risks to die off,” he explains. “I want people to know that local peasants are still producing art, and that they need to sell them in order to stay alive.”

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