Pottery is both a product and a process. Its products — be it whole or in pieces — of bygone ages provide one with the rich history of a particular location.
The making of pottery — the process itself — by means of hand movements, impurity removal, the heating process, and their respective improvements over the various civilizations has served to wow us as to how far the art has evolved over the many years.
Pottery — a strenuous process in the past involving much trial and error as history suggests — is now an art, a thriving industry, and living history.
But how can such things, vessels as old as time itself be relevant today, especially in Sarawak?
Sarawak is no monolithic state in multicultural Malaysia, given its racial, ethnic, lingual diversity stemming from various Melanau and Dayak ethnic groups and major settlements of Indian textile traders, Chinese miners brought by the Brook family. Such a varied demographic has inevitably resulted in eclectic pottery in terms of its heritage and history in the Land of the Hornbills.
The spectrum of Sarawak pottery ranges from prehistoric pottery (as Niah Caves, one of the oldest caves in Southeast Asia has evidenced to store such ancient vessels), to traditional Dayak (natives of Sarawak) pottery, to traditional Chinese pottery and contemporary pottery which is manufactured in light of a commitment towards sustainability and renewable energy.
Today, the art may be dying as many pottery workshops have ceased their operations with very few remaining to pass on the fading art of producing hand-made pottery. Andah Lembang has been dubbed as the “last traditional Iban potter”. To date, he remains active in producing unglazed clay pots or ‘periuk tanah,’ for cooking.
However, a revival may be looming as the founder of Gardencraft Co., Tuson Chong, a ceramicist and landscape architect is undeterred in re-introducing pottery to the public. Wong Sian Hup Pottery (a private pottery company), Ng Sian Hap Pottery Factory, and several others dot the map of Sarawak, giving proof that there remains a demand for pottery by the masses across the largest state of Malaysia despite the deprecation of the artisan aspect of Sarawak pottery. That artisan aspect remains a niche no hydraulic precision or mechanical moulding can fill, there is no parallel to the human touch of the potter’s hand.
Clearly, such a simple craft is here to stay, both for commercial modern use and as living history, despite its remnant presence. It is a common house item and a symbol for preserving Sarawak’s rich and continuing history at the same time.