Beading a Sabahan Passion with Eleanor Goroh

Special Feature: Beading Passion with Eleanor Goroh

By Chloe Lee Mei Tchuin

  • Tell us about yourself

My name is Eleanor Barbara D.Goroh. I am 36 years old. I am a beader and a cultural enthusiast. My mother is a Lotud from the coastal village of Tuaran and my father is a Tindal from the valleys of Kadamaian by Mount Kinabalu. I live with my family in the city and I go back to my village in Kampung Pinasang Tamu Darat, whenever I can, to develop our farm and land.


  • What’s your background?

Before turning a full time-artist, I was working as the coordinator for the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia). This was the turning point in my life when I started to learn more about my cultural heritage after having been exposed to the indigenous struggles and issues in our country.  


  • What first led you in the direction of making jewelry?

In 2010, I was sent to Miri for a meeting with WADESA (Wanita Desa Sarawak) and at the same time attended the inaugural Borneo International Beads Conference (BIBCo). I bought the book Borneo Beads written and compiled by Heidi Munan, the honorary beads curator of Sarawak Museum. Since then, I learned that beads are part of our indigenous heritage.Just like our land, territories and resources, beads brings distinct meanings to each tribe and we share common favourites – the Agit (carnelian), blue-green healing glass, orange mutisalah, and polychrome glass beads. BIBCo is now at its 5th year.The last one I attended was in 2017 held at Waterfront Hotel in Kuching.


  • How and when did you start making and selling jewelry for a living?

As I was still working with a monthly paycheck from the office, I started beading as a hobby and gave away my strings as gifts to friends and family. Since I left the office, I got requests and orders for my beads strings and this is when I started selling my beads for a living.


  • What was your first piece? Is there a story behind that piece?

My first piece would be the 7 Heavens (2010), named after the Dusun cosmology of the seven layers and realms of this world. It is a three-tier string made with the seven colours of the rainbow and seven different elements represented by the beads (wood, shells, stones, seeds, metal, bone, and glass).


  • What is your purpose of having Magic Borneo Beads?

Magic Borneo Beads was set up as I wanted to keep a journal of my spiritual journey learning about cultures and traditions of our land and people. This journey continues as my beads opened new pathways venturing to new things and new chapters of my life. I wish to share my story one day, to believe in magic and miracles, to give chance to things that was thought to be impossible.

  • How does your work comment on current social issues?

Addressing indigenous rights, often touches on current social issues. However, I am more comfortable doing it from the artistic perspective, through symbolisms and deeper meanings. I am not a politician. But as an artist, I am politically aware of our constant struggle to get recognition for indigenous rights. By promoting our cultural heritage, in a way, I am trying to spread this awareness through my beads.


  • Who are your biggest influences?

My family is my biggest influence and my biggest supporter. It is because of them I am what I am today. We just welcomed a new member in the family. My niece, Maia Jade is now 16 months old, and she is the reason why we must protect our heritage. It is something that we inherit from our ancestors to be passed down to the future generation.


  • How have you developed your career?

I am far away from having a developed career. It has been eight years since I began my beads journey, and I am still learning new things every day. It never ceases to amaze me. There are a lot of stories that has not been told about our land and people, and what knowledge we can gain by just taking the initiative to seek for these untold histories.

I love working with art collectives, it is from this collective energy I managed to join exhibitions, tours and shows for the past eight years. Although I prefer to be independent, I found out that it is also important to practice inter-dependency especially in the arts community. This is where we can help each other and work together for a bigger cause that bypass personal gain – grow from being individuals and merge into being a society.


  • How do you seek out opportunities?

So far in this journey, I have been very lucky to have found opportunities along the way. For this I am very grateful. As a member of the Tamparuli Living Arts and Cultural Heritage Association, we just launched the Tamparuli Living Arts Centre (TaLAC) on August 2nd 2016. At this artist residency, we got the chance to make bonds with arts community from around the world, by forming impromptu cultural exchange programs. For the past two years, we managed to bring our art and causes to cities to Kuching, Pontianak, Kuala Lumpur and as far as to cities in Europe. We will go for another tour this year.


  • What challenges do you face in your work?

I believe everyone is an artist. It is human to create and to try make something beautiful. The only difference, is whether we would choose to do this as a living. As an artist living in a small city in Sabah, we are scarce on supply and we pay quadruple compared to artisans in Kuala Lumpur. Our chance to showcase and exhibit is very limited and our market is really small.

Sabah artisans, must find their way to bring their works outside of our country where there is a bigger audience and bigger spending powers. Maybe it is time for Sabah to stop exporting our natural resources and start exporting human resource instead. Artisans can become ambassadors for our land and people. The economic gain from across our seas can be the source of funding for us to bring back home to build infrastructures for our communities.

  • Which current art world trends are you following?

I am not following any current trends. I just follow the flow where my journey takes me. Last year, I set up a Sompoton (traditional music instrument) farm from a small grant I got from MyKasih Foundation to learn the making of the sompoton and how to play the instrument.

It was thought by my uncle, Gundohing Giansing Lakansa from Tenghilan, the founder of Sabah’s bamboo orchestra. Recently this year, I picked up a new skill, learning more about Borneo traditional motifs and the traditional way of “hand tap tattoo”. I guess, the “trend” that this flow brought me to is the search for melodies and sounds, and later on patterns and meanings.


  • What is a typical day for you as a jewelry designer?

I wouldn’t call myself a jewelry designer – more of a beads enthusiast. On days I get my inspiration and ready for a day’s work without interruption, I will start beading my strings. And this does not happen daily. On other days I will be arranging my beads into order (I have a really big collection) or tend to other matters besides beading.

  • What are your favorite materials to use?

I still remain using the same beads as my first design – the 7 Heavens. The diversity of materials that I use for my strings gives a distinct look to my designs compared to other beaders. I am also trying to make my own beads, and tried using upcycled materials that can be used for my strings. At my last exhibit in Kuala Lumpur, I rolled up my old sarongs just like our kirai (traditional cigarettes) to form a beaded curtain as part of my commission piece.


  • What inspires your creativity when making a new piece of jewelry?

It all depends on where I am, whether I am out in nature, colours that I see at an event and even sometimes my dreams (when I can remember them). Anything and everything can become an inspiration if you let it be. However, my designs will most of the time bring Borneo inspired stories.


  • What’s your favorite piece of jewelry that you’ve made before and why?

My favourite piece would be the modern version of the Lotud’s Karoh. A distinct multi-layer necklace worn to complete our traditional costume. It is my favourite because it carries our old tradition and this fashion remains until today. This complements my mission to continue preserving our cultural heritage.


  • What advice would you give to for aspiring jewelry designers/ beads enthusiast?

I am no expert to give advice, but if I have the chance to share my knowledge, I would like to encourage aspiring designers to include elements of tradition into contemporary designs. This will nurture our creative artisans to have a distinct Borneo identity in their artworks. And of course, to make the choice of making art as a living, success doesn’t come overnight. It is not measured by material gain. I have been doing this for only eight years, and I will still continue trying.


For inquiries, contact Eleanor Goroh

T: +6016 588 9962
Facebook & Instagram: @magicborneobeads