Ensuring a cultural heritage lives on

The interior of the keringkam and songket gallery.

Songket and keringkam gallery highlights importance of textile in Sarawak’s rich history

KUCHING: Through the “Legasi-Regenerasi” (Legacy-Regeneration) thematic concept, the Songket and Keringkam Gallery projects the importance of textile in the Sarawak Malay heritage.

As part of the Old Kuching Smart Heritage (OKShe) initiative to protect and preserve the city’s heritage, the gallery was launched in March last year and it is located in Jalan Masjid.

Similar to any showcase gallery, informative graphics are displayed across the walls, including a historical timeline and a Sarawak map, which highlights the location on artisans community for songket and keringkam.

The gallery also has several sections, which include a retail section that displays songket and keringkam of different motifs, a Ready-To-Wear attires section as well as innovative craft items like clutches and shoes.

Visitors viewing displays in the gallery.

Through the interactive QR code in the gallery, visitors can watch videos on the embroidery and weaving process. They can also find out more on the different songket motifs like pucuk rebung (bamboo shoot), tampok manggis (mangosteen) and buah kesemak (banana foot).

The pucuk rebung (bamboo shoot) motif is named after the bamboo shoot plant which looks like a cone-shaped bud with a leaf motif as well as a flower with a set of stairs. In Malay, bamboo shoot motif symbolises strength, resilience and lush.

The tampok manggis motif is named after the mangosteen fruit. It has an interesting art element in its appearance and style while the buah kesemak or the banana foot motif represents four large petals, symbolising coolness and prosperity.

Some of the songket crafted by Kertinah Abdul Karim from Limbang as well as Mariam Kadir from Lawas are on display in the gallery.

A display of songket by Mariam Kadir from Lawas.

Historically, songket and keringkam were worn by the nobles of Sarawak. There are even photographs of Lady Margaret Brooke, Ranee of the second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke, in full Malay attire of kebarung and keringkam shawl.

In the modern society, songket and keringkam can be worn by anyone. It is a popular trend for Malay couples to wear matching or identical songket motif attire on their wedding day.  The bride’s attire would often be completed with a red keringkam which stands out against the white of their baju kurung on the akad nikah  (solemanisation ceremony).

Centre of Technical Excellence (Centexs) commercial general manager Mohamad Shahren Mohamad Yusri said Sarawak songket and keringkam were unique.

“Even though other states in Malaysia have their own songket, ours is  unique. As the motif is the same inside out, it can be worn either way.  The craftsmanship is good because they are handmade.”

He explained that the intricacies in the design of the songket and keringkam played an important part in determining their price.

“Unlike in the previous centuries, they can be worn by anyone. There are different price ranges for these handicrafts.

“The more intricate the motif, the more expensive it will be. For the keringkam, the thread used for the embroidery is usually made of gold or silver so they are pricey.”

Innovative crafts of songket clutches.

However, there are growing concerns among keringkam embroiderers and songket weavers as the younger generation do not show any strong interest in this handicraft. 

This is because the keringkam artisan community can only be found in the Perkampungan Melayu, Kampung Matang and Samariang in Kuching, Kampung Belimbing Islam in Padawan, Perkampungan Melayu Sibu in Sibu and Kampung Luak in Miri.

While the songket artisan community are located in Taman Hijrah, Penjara Puncak Borneo and Perkampungan Melayu in Kuching, Kampung Gedung in Simunjan, Kampung Rajang, Tajang Manis in Mukah, Kapung Punang in Lawas, Rancangan Perumahan Rakyat (RPR) Rangau and Kampung Buang Siol in Limbang as well as Kampung Mang in Samarahan.

As part of the efforts to encourage the younger generation to take up this skill, Centexs offers a Songket Weaving and Keringkam Embroidery Technical Training programme.

Shahren said an ecosystem and business model existed to empower as well as to ensure the longevity of this cultural heritage.

The ecosystem, he added, provided opportunities for both senior artisans and the younger generation.

“This heritage will vanish if senior artisans do not pass on the knowledge and skills to the younger generation. We introduced the programme because it creates a platform for people to learn the skills and obtain knowledge.

“It also provides an opportunity for senior artisans to become trainers and impart their knowledge to the next generation. When the younger generation takes over, they will be able to generate income whilst preserving the heritage.”

The gallery is open to the public daily from 9am to 6pm.