Iban man gives Barbie a Borneo makeover

Yeu-Gynn Yeung
·4-min read

Wesley Anak Juntan, better known as Wesley Hilton on social media, is an Iban descendant from Sarawak, Malaysia, who dresses Barbie and Ken dolls in traditional Borneo attire.

A flight attendant by trade, the 33-year-old started dressing Mattel’s most popular doll in intricate, traditional Borneo outfits to honor the gawai (harvest) festival in East Malaysia which falls annually on June 1.

The Borneo area in Southeast Asia refers to the third largest island in the world, which covers the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Brunei.

Due to the national pandemic lockdown, Wesley was among many Malaysians who couldn’t go home for gawai celebrations. So, he decided to celebrate it in his own way.

“Since we’re not allowed to go home for the celebration this year, I thought it would be a great idea if I made an Iban-inspired doll,” he told Coconuts KL in an interview.

His well-dressed dolls feature highly elaborate headdresses and painstakingly beaded dresses, complete with little traditional accessories like earrings and bangles.

“After I posted the first traditional costume on social media, I received a lot of comments and requests to create more looks with different Borneo ethnicities, and that’s when it all started,” he said.

A self-taught artist who started out sewing wedding dresses when he wasn’t on flight duty, Wesley was initially surprised by the massively positive response to his Borneo Barbies.

“My community is so proud to see these dolls dresses in our traditional costume,” he said. “This is a great way of me to represent the culture and bring it to other parts of Malaysia, and then the world.”

Wesley is also creating dolls on-demand and selling them for an average price of RM400 (US$90). He has sold 10 Borneo-inspired dolls so far.

Hard work recognized

Wesley’s artistry has recognized on Thursday by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture in Malaysia.

“Wesley’s dolls have given me an idea where his artwork could become a new tourism product based on arts and culture,” Tourism Minister Nancy Shukri wrote on social media.

Wesley, at left, presents Tourism Minister Nancy Shukri with a Borneo Barbie doll. Photo: Nancy Shukri/Facebook
Wesley, at left, presents Tourism Minister Nancy Shukri with a Borneo Barbie doll. Photo: Nancy Shukri/Facebook

While the dolls are original Barbies and Kens from Mattel, Wesley says coming up with ideas for their costumes is the toughest part of his process because he’s forging new territory.

“My only reference was pictures and articles on the costume,” he said. “No one has ever made the doll accessories for Sarawak’s traditional costume before.” “I would spend hours in the arts and crafts store looking at all the possible material that I think I could use. Basically it’s trial and error until I get the right materials, and methods to make every single accessory.”

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Meanwhile, the Sarawak native from the Sibu district said he works hard to get every minute detail of the traditional clothing right, down to the last little bead.

“The most challenging part for me is to maintain the authenticity of the costume, each ethnic (group) in Borneo has its own unique costume,” he added. “I have to do it right, from the color, shape, and even the number of accessories. Like, the number of bangles on each hand has to be at a specific count.”

The process of creating a new Barbie-sized Borneo outfit takes about a week. At the moment, Wesley has created 12 different designs, but the intricate Kumang doll remains a fan favorite, with her elaborate headdress and beaded, knee-length skirt.

The intricate Kumang doll. Photo: Wesley Anak Juntan/Instagram
The intricate Kumang doll. Photo: Wesley Anak Juntan/Instagram

Wesley hopes his Borneo Barbies will shine the spotlight on the various ethnicities in East Malaysia. According to 2016 statistics, there are nearly 60 different ethnic groups in East Malaysia.

“Through my Borneo inspired dolls, I hope that Malaysians realize that our nation is built from various ethnicities, especially in East Malaysia,” he said.

He hopes they will inspire others to appreciate the beauty of homegrown culture.

“I wish to expose more minority ethnicities to the world with traditional costumes of Borneo, so that the new generation would know its beauty and play their part to preserve our culture,” he added.

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This article, Iban man gives Barbie a Borneo makeover, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company. Want more Coconuts? Sign up for our newsletters!