Malaysia’s Dusun Tindal Pottery

Traditional pottery making in Malaysia is a millenniums old tradition which that is supported by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation and constructive steps have been taken to sustain it. Because Malaysia has an approximate population of 31 million, which is comprised of more than 200 different ethnic groups, the importance of this craft —, which carries strong traces of culture, — becomes evident. Thus, Dusun Tindal’s pottery production, which belongs to one of these main ethnic groups (of which a great majority live in the Sabah state), has been conserved by the Corporation due to their craft’s characteristics and the primitive methods they use throughout the process. Within the field study conducted in November 2014, it was determined that there were only two or three potters left in Malaysia’s Sabah state who were maintaining their traditional pottery production. Kantiam Binti Setan, who belongs to the Dusun Tindal tribe, was interviewed in her hut-workshop in the rain forests of Melangkap Kapa Village and her production process was recorded. The aim of this study is to examine and document Kantiam’s homeland’s traditional and cultural reflections on her ceramic forms.

Currently, the population distribution of Malaysia, which is approximately 31 million and has 13 autonomous states, is made up of 50% Malay (Muslim), 22.6% Chinese, 11.8% local community, 6.7% Indian, and 8.2% foreign nationals. Within this, 61% (who are entirely Muslim) consist of Malays and the local community (some which are Muslim) who are Bumiputera, meaning they are referred to as the rightful owners of Malaysian lands. Moreover, it is known that in Malaysia there are more than 200 main/sub ethnic groups that carry different cultural motifs and have their own language, aside from the national language (Malaysia Population by Ethnic groups, 2010).

From a geographical perspective, Malaysia comprises of two parts which are east (Borneo) and west (Mainland) Malaysia. There is no land connection between the east and west Malaysian lands and in the vast area between the Indian Ocean and the Northern Pacific Ocean (its most distinct example being Indonesia), Malaysia has scattered lands which consist of islands. When viewed from an historical perspective, this situation indicates that a trade-based cultural wealth and intertwining that has spread in the region over the centuries has formed. Therefore, it is considerably difficult to classify and draw sharp lines in understanding the historical processes and indexes used as formulas in archaeological ceramic findings. However, when referring to the common denominator in the entire region it can be said that ceramics from China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Middle East, which have strong cultures from older periods, are in circulation, and apart from these products there is a characteristic ‘local’ ceramic production that meets daily needs in each region too. During the historical processes that date back to approximately the 1880s, due to the abundance of imported ceramics and production intensity of functional/casual pottery, it is difficult to determine whether both the daily and dynasty ceramics were ‘prestigious and expensive’ craftsmanship products. This is because, for that period, the pieces that were considered ‘sophisticated’ could be imported from the aforementioned countries, and those who were meeting their daily needs could easily and copiously be produced by the local people using local clay (Maidin, 1996, 24-25). However, the current value of these widespread functional ceramics exceeds the time spent in the primitive production processes, the craftsmanship, or the richness of the raw materials; these examples shed light on the lifestyle, history, language, culture, beliefs, and perceptions of a certain geography. Though — as is the case in every country and branch of craftsmanship — as a result of the impact of alternative materials and the increase in the power of technology, this tradition in Malaysian pottery is on the verge of extinction (Alman, 1960). To prevent this situation, and to protect the cultural richness of the country, the Corporation has taken the potters ‘under protection’ and in order for the products to preserve their originality, they closely monitor ceramic production of the selected potters and their workshops. There are no more than 30 of these craftsmen in the country.

Conversely, when the most extensive and foundational resources on Malaysian pottery are examined, (due to Malaysia being a British colony and within the British perception of colonization, specialists in science, art and natural sciences were prioritized by the team that were to colonize) it can be seen that they are written by ‘Western’ writers, who are primarily English. Considerable research that began in the 1890s and finished towards the end of the 1960s. In many studies carried out after this date, western writers’ implications were cited (Jaafar and Asaruddin, 1996, pg. 35-43).

In many pottery villages the clay sources are found hours away in terms of walking distance (as there are many spots in the rainforest that are not accessible by car) or at a river bed populated by crocodiles.