Clay Expression
The Art & Craft of Expressing Passion with Clay
Seramik Kraftangan Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, PJ


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Magical Expression With Clay Ceramics Articles Contents
Keeper of a Dying Art
Traditional Iban
Long House Potter

Unfinished pots at Andah's Workshop waiting to be fired.

The Ibans have a word called berandau, meaning to ďsit around and chitchatĒ, so when you enter the longhouse ruai (common veranda), you donít walk directly from one end to the other.


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<< Longhouse ruai (common veranda).

ďIbans believe itís taboo to walk directly across the longhouse, as bad spirits will drain the wealth from the longhouse.

Traditional Iban longhouse >>

Occasionally, the longhouse folks would spontaneously hold a welcoming dance for the guests. Performing their heritage ngajat (an Iban dance).

Traditional potter Andah Lembang describing his craft to some visitors>>


The tools which Andah uses to make his pots are sourced from Nature and shaped by hand ó (foreground left to right) penempa carved from belian (ironwood); batu segala or batu bulat; and simpai and bemban made from rattan.

Motifs used to adorn the pots are based mostly on flowers and Nature, such as (left pic) bunga perut anak katak (baby frog's stomach), bunga segi empat (squares), a smaller version of bunga perut anak Katak, bunga bintantg (star) and bunga mata (eye).

TRADITIONAL Iban pottery is unique because the clay is beaten into shape rather than formed on a potterís wheel.

The process begins with a particular type of dark-coloured clay which is broken into small pieces and left to dry under the sun.

Itís then pounded into a fine powder with a wooden mallet and sieved to extract stones and other foreign objects.

The powder is mixed with water until it forms a smooth, dough-like clay which is then kneaded to remove air bubbles which could cause the pot to crack during the firing stage.

The clay is then formed into cylindrical shapes. The bigger the cylinder, the bigger the potís size.


This part of the process requires steady hands as one misstep will force the potter to smooth the surface of the pot out and begin all over again. The potter must ensure the thickness of the potís walls remains the same and that no cracks appear.

Once the pattern is completed, the potter carefully extracts the embedded rattan circle from the lips of the pot, using a small knife, then water and their fingers as well as the round handle of the penempa, to smoothen the lips and neck of the pot.

The pot is examined closely for cracks and defects before it is dried under the sun for a few days. After that, itís slowly smoked over a wood fire to extract any remaining moisture.

The potter uses a flat wooden paddle to flatten one end of the cylinder into a circle roughly twice the width of its original diameter to form the mouth of the pot.

A simpai Ė a circle made of thin rattan strips with a diametre big enough for an adultís hand to pass through Ė is placed on the centre of this flat surface.

The clay outside of the simpai is folded inwards, completely covering the circle and holding it in place. This will help the potís mouth to keep its shape during the beating process.

The potter then pushes one end of a small pestle through the centre of the embedded simpai to form a hollow cavity in the body of the cylinder, taking care to ensure the thickness of the cylinderís walls is even and to smooth over any cracks which may appear.

The clay vessel now looks like a cylindrical vase but not for long. The potter lightly presses a round stone (batu segala or batu bulat) against the inside of the vessel as he or she lightly beats the outside with a flat belian (ironwood) paddle called a penempa.

The potter turns the pot over little by little as he or she continues beating, working from the bottom of the pot upwards towards the mouth, using the round stone and penempa to give the pot its distinctive round-bottom.

Master Craftsman: Andah proudly showing one of his finished creations at his longhouse, located at Nanga Sumpa Sumpa in the remote area of Ulu Batang Ai, Sarawak.

Andah is one of the three remaining traditional pottery artisans still alive in Sarawak.

The whole process, from sieving white clay from the river, to drying, shaping and firing, takes about three weeks for a decent-sized pot.


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Finally, the pot is fired in an open woodfire for about half an hour to harden it before being immediately dipped while still hot into a solution of pounded samak tree bark and water.

This makes the vessel waterproof as well as increases its durability. The finished pot is then left to dry completely.

Throughout the shaping and beating process, the potter uses his or her fingers, dipped in water, to keep the clay moist and moldable, and smooth out any cracks.

The reverse side of the penempa has motifs Ė usually inspired by flowers and nature Ė carved into it.

When the round shape of the pot is fully formed, the potter uses this carved side to stamp patterns on the potís outside surface; again turning the pot slightly after each stamp until a circle has been completed and working from the base to the mouth of the pot.

The pot can be positioned upright on a rattan ring (bemban). Alternatively, thin strips of rattan are woven to create a basket-like jacket and handle which enables the pot to be conveniently hung or carried.

Nowadays, Andah usually uses commercial grade potterís clay which can withstand higher temperatures without cracking.

He also uses a small gas oven for the firing stage as it is easier to control and monitor the firing temperature compared to an open woodfire.

Acknowledgment of information source: Andah Lembang and Kraftangan Malaysia. and TheStar Saturday December 22, 2007 Longhouse visit with a difference. By LEONG SIOK HUI
Title: Nanga Sumpa - Iban longhouse


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