Catama Borneo - where chic meets tradition. The group is founded by 2 passionate friends with a common purpose - to keep alive and sustain the indigenous plaiting technique, adding their own contemporary twist in design.
Read on for an in depth understanding on the setup of Catama and the processes involved in producing their craft.
B: Borneo Art Collective
C: Catama Borneo
B: Could you describe your group in brief?
C: We are a Social Enterprise working with Artisans in Sarawak, Borneo to create contemporary design pieces using traditional techniques. We strive for preservation through innovation to ensure a living art rather than a dying craft. Our artisan’s products capture the story, history and culture of the craft makers who create them, whilst showcasing their unique skills and designs for a contemporary, international market.
B: Why and how did you start this group?
C: Started in 2014 when we won the British Council & Arthur Guinness Projects “Social Entrepreneur for Good Award”. Co-founders Catriona Maddocks and Amalina Arip had a shared passion for Sarawakian craft and wanted to elevate it to a respected international art and help indigenous communities to gain sustainable economies through craft production whilst ensuring they passed on the skills to younger generations.
B: What influenced you to begin this group?
C: Catriona, originally from the UK, began doing a Masters in craft development strategies for indigenous communities in Sarawak- wanted to do more than produce a thesis that would sit and get dusty in a library, wanted to make real, tangible difference for rural craft communities.
Amalina, a Melanau-Chinese Sarawakian, lived abroad for many years and always shared with and educated foreigners about talent and beauty of Sarawakian art. When she finally returned home she understood there was a ready international market for crafts and wanted to help preserve and innovate Sarawakian design.
B: What was on your radar when you were creating this group?
C: We wanted to encourage pride in Sarawakian in their unique cultural heritage, introduce it to a new audience and empower rural communities.
B: What are you busy working on at the moment? And where do you see your project evolving in the near future?
C: Currently, we produce and sell stacking basket range- contemporary plaited bamboo baskets. Working on the handbag and accessories line we hope to launch by end of year. We're always looking to expand our network and work with more rural communities. There are so many talented craft makers living in very rural communities who we would love to work with and help them create sustainable livlihood through their craft heritage.
B: How do you see Borneo crafts at the moment?
C: Endangered! Many people don’t realise how endangered Sarawak’s’ indigenous craft heritage is. Many crafts on sale on waterfront are actually bought from Indonesia where crafts are much cheaper- means craft sellers are able to undercut local Sarawakian craft makers’ prices considerably so that it is not economically viable to for them to produce and sell products. If there is no financial incentive younger generations tend not see the purpose in learning to plait.
Jayl Langub quote- “every time an Elder from the village dies it is like a library going up in smoke”
Deforestation has played a major role also- many rural communities are finding it much harder to access natural materials and so are turning to plastic weaving or giving up craft making all together. Plastic weaving is quite a different process so many intricate traditional patterns are no longer plaited and traditional skills and collection and preparation processes of natural materials are not learnt by younger generation.
B: Could you tell us more about the plaiting method used in the products sold by Catama?
C: Our craft makers use a number of natural materials, all sustainably harvested from the jungle surrounding their community. Materials include bemban, rattan, bamboo, pantu and palm leaves.
They use bemban and bamboo the most as these are the easiest to find and work with.
Bemban is a long reed which grows in swampy land. once it reaches 3 to 4 feet in height it is harvested. The outer green layer is scratched off and at this stage either paint is applied to be plaited into colourful patterns or it is boiled to preserve it and turn it to light brown colour.
It is then sliced into thin strips using a small blade. the strips are then shaved down and prepared to similar width and lengths. The strips can now be plaited and craft makers can use a combination of colourful and natural strips to make more striking designs or just natural strips. The strips will be plaited in to a patterned motif- if only natural strips are used the motif can only be seen when light catches the mat.
Bamboo is their favourite material to use as It grows abundantly, regrows very quickly so is the most sustainable and is quick to prepare and work with.
They cut a long stem of bamboo down and cut it into 2 or 3 feet sections, following the knotted natural sections of the bamboo.
The outer layer is scratched off and it is left to dry in sun for 1 week.
Once it is dry craft makers would add paint, however we have taught them to use dyeing techniques instead as the colour is absorbed beautifully into the bamboo and compliments the natural fibre much more than thick paint.
The bamboo sections are cut into 2cm thick strips which can whittle down to produce 4 layers of strips. the bamboo is then added to the dye bath and once coloured and dried can be sliced the correct thickness and plaiting begin.
Patterns and motifs are created by weaving the warp and weft threads. A pattern is created by overlapping and underlapping threads.
We have catalogued all of our craft makers traditional motifs, recording names and stories and encouraged younger members of the group to learn the names of each pattern so that this knowledge is preserved.
We also use this motif portfolio of designs to work with our clients and develop custom made plaited craft items. We are also working on some new contemporary motifs to introduce to our craft makers
B: How could people access your project at the moment? Is there any public participation/volunteer you allow in your project?
C: Website www.catamaborneo.com and facebook.com/Catama Borneo
We attend fairs and expos. We are always looking for like-minded people and are interested in taking on volunteers who can help us in our activities. We're also currently developing an intern programme for designers to help us develop products and branding materials.
B: Please recommend stories/projects/individuals/groups that we should reach out to in order to expand the Borneo Art Collective network.
C: Helping Hands Penan- A organisation working with Penan communities to develop contemporary plastic woven bags
Borneo Origins- An organic skin care range using Borneon ingredients such as terong assam and Dabai oil
Narong Daun- bidayuh silk painter/ artist
Senia Craft - Catherine Senia Anak Jugi is our mentor and a very talented Iban artisan who has been creating beautiful bemban handbags for over 20 years.
B: What would be your message to aspiring fellow Borneo Entrepreneur / Craftsmanship?
C: Follow your passion, be prepared to face many challenges and people to tell you it’s not possible or been tried before and didn’t work. Be prepared to collaborate, share ideas and support others, don’t view them as competition as we need as many passionate, focused and creative innovators as possible to keep Sarawakian art alive and relevant in modern times.