Bajau Laut traditional weaving featured alongside contemporary artworks at ATP10

Stateless Bajau Laut weavers from Omadal island, in Sabah, have their tepo featured for the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial Contemporary Art (ATP10) in Brisbane, Australia.

Story and photos by YUSRA ZULKIFLI for Lensa Seni

The tepo, a pandanus woven mat by the Bajau Laut, is currently being featured at the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art or APT10 until April 25.

This is a significant achievement for the Bajau community as the APT10 is an exhibition that focuses on contemporary arts in Asia and the Pacific, including Australia. Since its inception in 1993, it has featured the representation of the region’s cultural diversity while discovering indigenous societies’ visual culture.

The renowned tepo was woven by Bajau Laut weavers Noraidah Jabarah, Kinnuhong Gundasalo, Makcik Lukkop Belatan, Sana Belasani and Rahima Jakarani. They come from Omadal island in Sabah.

The island was a strategic point and gateway for the Bajau Laut to enter Semporna, Sabah. It was known as a stopping point and trade centre as it was rich in marine life. The island was one of the earliest Bajau Laut settlements in Semporna.

The APT10 offers a showcase of sorts as it explores the cultural relations that interrogate contemporary works and indigenous craftsmanship in a digital society. It features artists working with traditional materials and techniques and introduces the traditional art form to museums and collectors.

What is interesting about the Bajau community at Omadal island is that they are made up of two groups. The Bajau Laut are without paper identification, and the local Bajau are Malaysians. The stateless Bajau Laut live on stilt houses on water, while the other group live on the island’s coast. The weavers featured in APT10 are stateless and have limited access to basic human rights such as public healthcare and education.

Noraidah Jabarah or Kak Budi’s house.

Noraidah Jabarah or Kak Budi learned to weave tepo from her late mother and late grandmother. She can weave intricate, complex patterns applying up to six different colours in a tepo. She likes to sing while she weaves, which was a common practice of her elders.

The act of weaving reminds her of her elders so much so she weeps while weaving, especially when doing it alone. Weaving connects her to her ancestors as this is the knowledge passed down from mother to child. She prefers to weave in a group or weave only for a commission or for happy events such as weddings as the act of weaving brings sadness to her and reminds her of her lost loved ones.

The use of tepo in daily life is less common now compared to her childhood days. Everyone would weave a tepo for use by family members and relatives back then. The tepo was used for sleeping, receiving guests, ceremonies and rituals such as food offerings for the elders.

Nowadays, the tepo is reserved for special occasions such as weddings, rituals and funerals. A few months ago, Kak Budi weaved a vibrant multi-coloured tepo for her daughter’s wedding ceremony and as a gift to her daughter.

However, she says in her village, a plain tepo is required to conduct rituals such as Magombo’ to honour their ancestors for blessings in their life. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful domestic object integral to their social life.

Kak Budi lays her tepo for her guests.

Kak Budi weaves for Wanita Pulau Omadal (WAPO), who have collaborated with the contemporary artist Yee I-Lann in recent years. Yee’s artwork, in collaboration with the Bajau Laut weavers, has been featured in a circuit of international exhibitions since 2019 in Singapore, Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong and Australia.

Kak Budi is pleased with her work for Yee. She proudly places her photo with Yee on her wall, which also showcases all of her childrens’ wedding photo ceremonies.

Recently, Kak Budi’s tepo was acquired as part of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (GAQOMA) art collection amongst the contemporary artists within the Asia Pacific. She is happy that others appreciate her work. Her family live a simple life, but they are rich in culture and tradition.

The increase in demand for tepo has provided a good livelihood for Kak Budi and other weavers. Her husband does not fish as often anymore and helps with household chores such as cooking and taking care of their children when she has to weave. Weaving activities have given more income to her family in addition to fishing.

Kak Budi supports her family by buying boat engines for her husband and son, and this has helped them with their fishing activities. Weaving gives the Bajau Laut weavers economic empowerment and improves their socio-economic conditions.

Although Yee’s artwork in collaboration with weavers such as Kak Budi has travelled the world, Kak Budi lives in a humble home off the waters of Omadal island. She is a Bajau Laminusa and comes from Bangao, Tawi-Tawi island, Philippines. After her marriage, she moved to Omadal island and lives permanently there. Her husband is a Bajau Laut from Omadal island.

Kak Budi’s Tepo on the timber floor with water seen through the floor gaps.

Her husband’s family was one of the early settlers on the water there. She came sailing with her husband from Tawi-Tawi island, living in their boathouse.

At home, Kak Budi lays a tepo on the floor when she welcomes her guests to her house.

When the mat is not in use, it is folded and wrapped in a clear plastic bag to protect it from rain and dust. Tepo is not just a pandanus woven mat but a valuable domestic object they are proud to have.

APT10’s recognition of these works by the indigenous society has given them a platform to showcase their otherwise hidden visual culture. APT10 has also provided a platform for dialogues surrounding the Bajau Laut’s craft culture, such as their social, economic and political conditions. Moreover, it gives cultural, economic and gender empowerment to an otherwise marginalised society.


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