Pua Kumbu is a new series of ten intricately constructed sculptures by Anniketyni Madian, created during her tenure at the acclaimed Rimbun Dahan residency programme. Entirely hand-made by the artist herself in wood, these wall-based sculptures continue Anniketyni’s explorations into the positions of culture and tradition in the increasingly urbanized landscape of contemporary Malaysia.

Originally hailing from Kuching, Anniketyni draws heavily on the traditions of East Malaysia in her creative practice. Deriving inspiration from the ceremonial Pua Kumbu textiles of her native Sarawak, Anniketyni combines culture with a highly current graphic aesthetic. In doing so the artist reinterprets the notions of tradition via a highly recognizable and sacred artifact and strategically utilizes it in the critical context of the rapidly developing landscape of twenty-first century Malaysia. ‘Tradition’ has always been a key element in the language of contemporary Malaysian art. It is a visual indicator of the narratives and histories of the local community. Re-interpreting it, as Anniketyni successfully does with these sculptures, can therefore be seen as a commentary and visual demonstration of the shifts that are occurring in society today. To understand the relevance of Anniketyni’s endeavors, it is first essential to understand the role of the Pua Kumbu textile itself within Iban culture.

The hand-woven warp ikat textile of the Iban, Pua Kumbu is said to represent the very essence of Iban culture. While the term Pua Kumbu directly translates into ‘a grand blanket’ it is hardly ever used as such. Rather, it is reserved for lifecycle rituals, special events and spiritual encounters. Iban history and mythology are full of references to textiles being used as sacred objects, thus contextualizing the role of Pua Kumbu as a central artifact to the culture of indigenous Malaysia. There are several variations in pattern, and they can be viewed independently as historical archives, mythological tales or highly personal narratives. As is true for the majority of textile arts, the act of weaving is left to the women in the community, thus establishing the central role women have played in the shaping and evolution of this textile craft.

Iban society sets specific gender roles and the act of weaving establishes a woman’s position within social hierarchies. Iban girls begin to learn the art of making Pua Kumbu in adolescence from their mothers in a years-long process that is interspersed with rituals to appease the spirits. Along with developing her skills, a weaver learns the larger lesson of establishing a relationship with the spirits through her art. As such, weaving Pua Kumbu is more than just a skill set; it is a deeply spiritual practice that reveals much about the individual who creates each cloth. Innovation is prized in the Iban community, and this is transferred to the weavers, with creativity and ingenuity acting as key indicators of an excellent Pua Kumbu. This quality of innovation is apparent in the works of Anniketyni, which are set apart through their content, aesthetic and medium.

It is easy to draw parallels between the weaving of Pua Kumbu and Anniketyni’s inspired wooden wall sculptures.  When appreciating the Pua Kumbu textile, a viewer is conscious of the application of the weaver’s creative, technical and artistic skill, which mirrors the layered appreciation Anniketyni’s works receive. Slightly more complex however is comparing the examinations of the symbolic language that exists in both Pua Kumbu and Anniketyni’s sculptures. The Ibans draw on their extensive canon of oral literature for ideas for motifs and designs. The symbols and icons available to a weaver are often intertwined, mixing myth with personal stories and in the process creating beautiful and detailed visual narratives. Starting with these traditional motifs, the artist pares them down into sharp, slim lines, which initially were enclosed in circles or ellipses. In these new works she experiments with more open-ended structures; there is no distinct perimeter running along the edge of the sculptures. This is at odds with the classical Pua Kumbu style, where motifs had to be tightly encased, often as an act of protection between the physical and spiritual worlds. Opening up the patterns can be seen as a literal opening up of the landscape, economically, socially and developmentally, and acts as a visual segue between the past and present.

Anniketyni creates in wood, which seems to be the polar opposite to fabric, due to its innate static quality. Despite the inert nature of wood and wall sculpture, Anniketyni draws inspiration for her work from kinetic artists such as Theo Jansen, architects and engineers. By constantly experimenting with incorporating the neat technicality of construction into her creative process, beginning with her delightfully fluid drawings, she achieves a wonderful sense of fluidity in her completed works. Planning is key to the success of each sculpture and these drawings act as plans from which the two-dimensional Pua Kumbu patterns can be shaped into their three-dimensional forms. The wooden slices have edges, shapes, sides and depth cut into them, before being fit neatly together so as to create the smooth, seamless flow. In fabricating the entire sculpture herself Anniketyni establishes a direct rapport between herself, the sculpture and her audience.

Much in the way Pua Kumbu is an icon that asserts a distinctly Sarawakian identity, so is calligraphy seen as a distinctly Islamic icon. In this series viewers are treated to Anniketyni’s initial foray into the genre of contemporary calligraphy. By marrying her established experiments of both wood and Pua Kumbu patterns with calligraphy, she opens up a new dialogue regarding the construct of Islamic identity both within herself and in Malaysia. At a time when calligraphy has entrenched itself in the contemporary Malaysian art industry, vis a vis a series of highly influential works and shows by renowned artists such as Hamir Soib, Husin Hourmain and Mohd Nor Mahmud, Anniketyni joins their ranks yet sets herself apart with the use of an usual method and medium. Part of the joy in following a young artist as they establish themselves is watching the creation of new directions within their practice; here the audience is treated not only to a new direction in Anniketyni’s work, but also a new development in the popular contemporary calligraphy movement in the form of wall sculpture.

The commitment Anniketyni shows to her craft has not gone unnoticed by the art community, both in Malaysia and internationally. Two years after her 2009 graduation from Universiti Institue Teknologi Mara she held her first residency at The House of Matahati. After completing this prestigious residency at Rimbun Dahan she is set for a third residency at Vermont, in November 2015. Participating in residencies points to the recognition she derives from these establishments, as well as her own desire to continuously perfect her craft in an immersive setting. Having participated in the Sovereign Asian Art Awards.

In relating her heritage and identity with symbols that are highly traditional visually and conceptually, Anniketyni cleverly makes her aesthetic presentation fit with the currency of the developing society she observes surrounding her. Pua Kumbu is presented at an interesting time in her career, as she completes Rimbun Dahan Residency 2014, and audiences are able to see an exponential growth in her confidence, finish and content. Anniketyni’s proven dedication to her creative practice, coupled with her ability to communicate the evolution of a traditional society in a language relatable to a new generation, mark her out as an exciting emerging talent in the contemporary Malaysian art world.