Borneo Barbies – Preserving cultures through creative designs

Wesley with his Borneo Barbie dolls.

Anang enda ingat ke penatai diri taja jauh bejalai ke menua urang (do not forget our roots even though we have travelled far) — that’s the advice of his mother that Wesley Juntan holds dear whenever he goes to other places.

Maintaining the authenticity and details

Wesley in his traditional Iban costume.

According to 33-year-old Wesley Juntan, his mother’s brief advice always made him wonder about the real meaning behind it.

Wesley admitted, “I couldn’t understand it at first, but I still hold on to it dearly as I continue my journey in life.

“After graduating from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, I moved to Kuching to work as a substitute teacher. Then one day, I read an advertisement by Malaysia Airlines in a local newspaper. They were looking for flight attendants — and at that time, I thought that I should at least give it a try.

“As the Malay saying goes ‘tuah ayam nampak dikaki, tuah manusia siapa yang tahu’ (a rooster’s fortune lies at its feet, but for man, who knows?) — I passed the interview but that also meant that I had to stay in Kuala Lumpur.

“For me, I think that my rezeki (blessings) is always away from my hometown — and perhaps for that reason, my mother has always reminded me not to forget my origin.

“To be honest, I used to think that the expression ‘Anang enda ingat ke penatai diri taja jauh bejalai ke menua urang’ meant that I had to be polite and kind to people. As time goes by, now I understand the true meaning of the phrase,” said the Malaysia Airlines flight attendant.

Wesley, an Iban from Sekuau, Sibu pointed out that the powerful message from his mother, Nara Bunsu, always made him feel that he needed to do something to ensure the Iban culture would be preserved by future generations.

The recent movement control order (MCO), has given him plenty of free time and spurred an idea for him to create something that would impact the new generation and also outsiders so that they could appreciate the rich cultures of Borneo.

“Sarawak and Sabah are multiracial and have a lot of tribes where every tribe has their own unique costume. Therefore, I thought that if I could make it to Barbie size, that would be amazing.

“With this project, not only can I share my interests in needleworks and designing but it could also indirectly showcase the cultures of the people in Borneo. To me, this is important to safeguard our traditions and make sure that the heritage would not be lost.

“In addition, through this project, I really hope that people will get a bit of information on the uniqueness and meticulous designs of Borneo’s traditional costumes. It is hoped that this Borneo Edition Barbie will also inspire young people to continue preserving our uniqueness that is Borneo.

“Actually, this is not my first time customising Barbie dolls. I have been customising Barbie dolls since 2017 and my first custom doll was a flight attendant Barbie, clad in the Malaysia Airlines kebaya uniform,” he explained.

From then on, Wesley decided to continue and has also customised dolls wearing the Air Asia, Qatar Airways and Malindo Air uniforms, which he would sell for between RM200 and RM350 each.

Looking at Wesley’s work — one can really appreciate the complexity of the designs. He explains that he took a lot of time to put together the designs in order to maintain the authenticity and details.

According to him, getting those details are definitely no easy task. “Even the life-sized costumes are already hard to put together because of the amazing details, let alone a miniature one!” Well, all those hard work and details definitely paid off, as when Wesley finally decided to put the dolls up for sale, almost all of them sold out in just one day, and prompted even more requests and orders soon after.

Further elaborating, he added that there were 12 Borneo Barbies to choose from. His Kumang Barbie is a hit with customers — and it’s his favorite too — as the headgear (Sugu Tinggi) is actually very enchanting in real life.

“The real struggle is for me to think of how and what material to use to make the accessories look exactly the same as the original. In this regard, to make sure every detail of the costume is accurate, I refer to a lot of experts.

Wesley accompanied by his father, Juntan Empas and mother, Nara Bunsu during the Raban Ngepan Iban competition.

“Usually, it would take me about two to three days to complete one and it’s very hard considering the size of the doll and the accessories I have to create. It involves a lot of hardware works, sewing, beading, painting and all kinds of arts and crafts you can imagine. Luckily, I have a cousin who helped me a lot with the hardware work — most of which involve accessories for Kumang and Keling Barbies.

“I only use original Barbie dolls from Mattel, and each custom doll is priced between RM350 and RM650, depending on the complexity of the costume.

“Keling Barbies have the highest prices due to the complexity of making their accessories such as ‘sangkuh’, ‘terabai’ as well as the sword,” he told the New Sarawak Tribune.

Wesley, who had competed in the Raban Ngepan Iban for the Keling title last year, said the experience had inspired him to customise the Keling Barbie costumes.

Asked if he had any plans to customise other tribal costumes in Malaysia, he replied: “Yes, there is a plan but it would take some time as I need to study and draft them out first so for now, my focus is mainly on the current designs. I have also received requests to make the Kumang and Dayung Sangon Barbies in ‘Muslimah’ versions.”

Anyone interested in purchasing or pre-ordering customised Barbie dolls or just admire Wesley’s works of art, can head on to his Instagram @wesleyhilton or Facebook (Wesley Hilton).

Previous articlePolice nab wanted man
Next articleFloodwaters inundate 10 Sabah districts by noon