Suluk Ukkil on the Barung: Expressions, Motifs and Meanings narrates the expressions, motifs and meanings behind the ukkil carved on the barung, based on the results of two-year field research conducted in different districts of Sabah. It presents data gathered through various interviews with owners, elders, and subject-matter experts. It also presents data from direct observations of heirloom barung that are still found in the hands of a few Suluk and individuals from other indigenous ethnic groups. It presents new insights from the analysis made using the Theory of Iconology, a framework of analyzing art popularized by German art historian Erwin Panofsky. With its origin dating back to as early as 500 BC, the ukkil formed part of a centuries-old woodcarving art and tradition of the Suluk, one of the many indigenous ethnic groups of Nusantara (Southeast Asia). Suluk ukkil bears striking resemblance to the Malay ukir, both featuring similar patterns and motifs. The ukkil is often used to decorate jewellery, boats, houses, grave markers, and mosques. It is also used to decorate the hilts and sheaths of bladed weapons such as the barung.
The barung refers to the thick, leaf-shaped sword of the Suluk. A barung with a beautifully carved hilt and sheath, especially those using expensive wood, is considered high value and usually reserved for Suluk aristocrats. The predominant themes of ukkil found on ancient barung in Sabah are Islamic; zoomorphic such as birds, lizards, snakes, and squids; plantomorphic such as vines, flowers, and leaves; and cultural such as those depicting local myths, culture, values and traditions of the Suluk. Each of these images and themes represents realities that shaped the daily lives of the Suluk from the past until today, including the wind, the ocean waves and sea currents, all of which are essential for travel and navigation. They also depict concepts, beliefs and practices important to the Suluk such as freedom, livelihood, aristocracy, harmony within the community, leadership, spirituality, and Islamic principles.
The Suluk are a sea-faring people who have a deep relationship with their immediate environment, especially the sea. Suluk carvers draw inspiration from nature, the environment around them, their local culture, their religious practices, and their values and ideals in life. Both the ukkil and the barung are an embodiment of their rich past, their livelihood, creativity, their faith, their principles and their values in life. Sadly, the practice of ukkil-carving is fast declining nowadays, with only very few practitioners left and so few individuals interested in learning about it. The barung too, where the ukkil is often carved on, is no longer being produced in large numbers. As the ukkil, like all forms of art, constitutes an integral part of a nation’s culture and identity, it needs to be understood, preserved, and protected.
This book provides fresh knowledge and insights that will help the Suluk and other indigenous tribes of Malaysia and Nusantara in the understanding and preservation of the ukkil as an essential aspect of their country’s or their region’s culture and heritage. This book offers a historical background that will help explain the identity of the Suluk as a culturally and artistically advanced people with deep interconnection with other indigenous ethnic groups in Malaysia and the rest of Nusantara as early as the pre-colonial period. Knowledge about the ukkil can help people connect and correct their thoughts about the Suluk while at the same time promoting cultural awareness and diversity among Malaysians and other people in Southeast Asia. This book will hopefully pave the way for more research to be done on the arts and culture, not just of the Suluk but also of other indigenous ethnic groups in the region as well. That knowledge will serve as a medium for keeping harmony and cultural links among Malaysians and Nusantara.