Thursday, January 17, 2013


The art in Brunei span across all mediums: paintings, sculptures, architecture, photography. A lot of their arts are a mixture of the old and the new. Some of the more popular items that are sold are silver items, bronze work, and hand-woven baskets.  There’s a really popular open market – both with locals as well as tourists – in Bandar Seri Begawan called Tamu that sells a lot of art and other locally made items.

Much of the earliest Bruneian art goes back to the Kenyah and Kayan civilizations who occupied much of Borneo. The Kenyah and Kayan peoples populated the island of Borneo, and animals were an important part of their art. Art is shared among both sexes: men traditionally work with wood and metal, while women are pretty much the only ones who work in bead work and textiles. Their spiritual world shows up in a lot of their art and architecture. Many times they decorate their homes, clothing, objects they use with protective spiritual images as a means of using their protective powers they exude.

Men make these certain masks with really scary faces and ferocious expressions to protect the rice fields. It’s thought to be used as a way to ward off evil spirits that damage crops. They also developed a “soul-catching” mask, which they believed that when you sleep or are unconscious, your soul can escape from your body causing you to get sick. If they believe this is happening, they will send a shaman to catch it.

Women are exclusively the ones who do beadwork. It’s actually very complex art, utilized in clothing, hats, baskets, and their unique baby carrier they have called a ba’. Many of these items use the tiny seed beads and make intricate designs. Beads were even once used as a means to purchase things, and it’s thought that certain kinds of beads have special powers and used as an amulet.

Most literature in Brunei is either written in Malay or in English. (I’ve been reading a lot of English-language articles from The Brunei Times lately to get information for these posts, one of their largest newspapers.) The most popular form of literature is a poetry style called sajak. No, not Pat Sajak, but close. (Actually, no. Pat Sajak is of Polish descent and grew up in Chicago.) Sajak is a Malay free-form style (meaning “rhyme” in English) that was full of nationalistic symbolism once used as a means of propaganda during the days when the Japanese occupied the island during WWII.  There aren’t a lot of Bruneian writers that are well-known outside of the region, but the most famous work that came out of Brunei is the epic poem called Sya’ir Awang Simawn, about a famous hero to their culture. However, there are a few books mentioned which use Brunei as its setting. One is a book called Armageddon by Dan Brown (although I can’t figure out if this is the same Dan Brown who wrote The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons). Another is an Anthony Burgess novel called Devil of a State (I believe it’s the same author of A Clockwork Orange.). 

Up next: Music and Dance


  1. Hi, really great article. I think being a Bruneian myself sometimes we tend to take for granted the things we grew up in.. Quite refreshing to read it from a visitor's angle (not to mention your beautiful descriptions).

    Incidentally, It was Dale Brown who wrote Armageddon ;)


  2. Thanks for the correction! I found two places listing it as a Dan Brown, but seeing how I own five of his books, I was confused why there was one out there I didn't know of. But now that I know the true author's name, I may have to try to find it now. Thanks for reading! Your country is fascinating.

  3. Can you site some examples of the literature in Brunei? Thank you :)

  4. Hi, Mitzi. There really isn't a lot that I could find for specific examples. But I did come across this article about a collection of English-language poetry that you might find interesting. It gives a little more information as well as what people are currently working on in Brunei. You can read it here -->