This sculpture is not of a living person but of my observations of the Kelabit people who are an indigenous people of the Sarawak highlands in Borneo and where I have travelled to observe and make sculptures of these proud people who have a minority in the neighbouring state of Brunei. The elevation is slightly over 1,200 meters and there are few roads and the area is largely inaccessible by river because of rapids, but the situation is improving.
With a population of approximately 5,000 people, the Kelabit comprise one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. Many have migrated to urban areas over the last 20 years or so and it is estimated that only 1,800 still live in their remote homeland. They moved out mostly to get further education and to get jobs that suit their qualifications in towns and cities like Miri, Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, Kuala Lumpur and other places overseas. Many are involved in a range of professional occupations today.
Their tightly knit communities live in inherited longhouses and practice a generations old form of agriculture. They are cultivators of wet paddy, hill rice, maize, tapioca, pineapple, pumpkin, cucumber, beans and fruit. Hunting and fishing is also practiced. Domesticated buffalo are valued highly, seven of which are traditionally required for the dowry for an upper class bride. In times past the Kelabit had to rely on bird and bird augury and dreams as guidance before beginning an important journey or starting the agriculture cycle. Certain rituals and practices were observed before commencing any undertakings. Sometimes these rituals required them to abandon a field that had been cleared for farming or leave their ripened rice to rot.
Over a century ago, the Kelabit were involved in head hunting raids, not so much for ritual purposes but as a means to prove one’s courage and bravery, and to get even with an enemy. Thus, a person who succeeded in head hunting exploits was hailed as a hero and looked upon as a role model for others. Stories of successful exploits are narrated in various forms of oral story and music.. During the Second World War the Kelabit, like other natives of Borneo, were co-opted by the Allies into fighting the Japanese and played an essential role in the liberation of Borneo. After the War this remote ethnic group received visits from Christian missionaries. The Kelabit are now predominantly Christian. Prior to conversion they were Pagan and very close to nature and it's ways. They had a custom of erecting megaliths in honour of notable individuals such as a headman or great warriors and spirits of the rain-forest
From my talking and staying with these people I found them to be very open and friendly and I am proud of meeting the first Kelabit man to become a school teacher who went back to the highlands to teach the next generation. He still dresses in the traditional ways of the Kelabit, in fact his appearance is not to far off my sculpture.