Lying off the coast of Southeast Asia, Borneo is the largest island of the great Malay archipelago that stretches eastward from Southeast Asia to the western tip of New Guinea. Covered by dense tropical rainforest, this enormous island, roughly twice the size of the British Isles, is divided between the modern nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei. Europeans first encountered this land in 1521, when members of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition made a brief stop at Brunei, but the island remained largely unexplored by Europeans until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Today, the cities of the coast are predominantly Islamic, and the indigenous peoples live deep in the interior.
Borneo is home to a number of distinct artistic traditions. Of these, the Kenyah-Kayan tradition is among the most aesthetically accomplished. Named for the Kenyah and Kayan peoples among whom it originated, it is found among the Kenyah, Kayan, Bahau, Modang, and related groups in the interior of Borneo, although some of its stylistic influences extend as far as the coast. Kenyah-Kayan art is characterized by a sinuous blending of plant and animal forms that often brings to mind Norse or Celtic art of Europe. Kenyah-Kayan artists work in a variety of media ranging from indigenous materials such as wood and the ivory-like hornbill casque to imported glass beads from sources as distant as Italy, Britain, and Bohemia. Both sexes contribute to the artistic life of the community. Men traditionally work materials such as wood, antler, and metal. Women work in beads and fiber. Most surviving examples from the classic period of Kenyah-Kayan art date from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, although some pieces may be much earlier. While some Kenyah-Kayan art forms, particularly those associated with warfare, are no longer produced, others, including carving and beadwork, continue. Although Christianity has become widespread in the interior, masking traditions persist, and many young mothers still carry their children in distinctive beaded baby carriers adorned with designs that afford protection from harmful spirits. Death and Life in the Longhouse
Most of the indigenous peoples of Borneo live in massive communal structures known as longhouses. Essentially a village under a single roof, a longhouse can be up to 300 yards in length and house dozens of individual families. Inside the longhouse, each family lives in a separate apartment or amin set along a central corridor that serves as the village "street." Kenyah-Kayan society is traditionally divided into several hereditary social classes: high chiefs, minor nobility, commoners, and, formerly, slaves. Within the longhouse community, gender roles are conspicuous. Women were, and are, largely responsible for rice agriculture and child rearing, while men, until the early twentieth century, carried on warfare and headhunting. In the Kenyah-Kayan worldview, all of these activities brought life and vitality to the community. Though acquired through the death of an enemy, heads were the sustainers of life. Displayed in the longhouse gallery and kept "comfortable" with their own fire, enemy skulls were believed to bring health and prosperity to the village and fertility to its rice fields.
The Spirit World
The imagery of Kenyah-Kayan art abounds with fearsome, otherworldly creatures. They appear on everything, from the massive wooden beams of the longhouse to the delicately carved ornamentation of warriors' swords. These monstrous beings protect the individual and community by driving off dangerous spirits. The Kenyah-Kayan cosmos is divided into an Upperworld and an Underworld populated by gods and spirits. While the gods have little involvement with daily life, the forests and rivers are home to an abundance of spirits that interfere constantly in human affairs.
Left unprotected, the longhouse community might easily be invaded by spirits bearing ill luck, disease, and even death. Points of transition, whether spatial or physical, are particularly dangerous places. The symbolic and physical entrances from life to death or exterior to interior through which humans pass can also be used by spirits. Spirits may enter the longhouse through a door, for example, and bring sickness to the living or attack the vulnerable souls of the newly dead. To repel these malevolent spirits, Kenyah-Kayan artists adorn both the longhouse and its occupants with images of powerful supernatural guardians. Like the gargoyles on medieval cathedrals, dragon-like creatures stare out from the roof, walls, and doors of the longhouse. Clothing, ornaments, utilitarian objects, and the coffins and graves of the dead are also embellished with protective images. In Kenyah-Kayan cosmology, the representation of these powerful creatures in art is more than symbolic. It serves to invoke the creature itself in a very literal sense, placing it within its image and with it, its protective powers.
The entrances to Kenyah-Kayan villages and longhouses are especially vulnerable to supernatural attack. To deflect spirits, particularly those bringing sickness, the Kenyah-Kayan place imposing guardian figures, known as uyat, around the longhouse entrances and along the paths leading up to the village. These figures take both human and animal forms. The posts and ladders at the entrance itself bear similar imagery.
Facial features such as eyes and teeth are emphasized, producing a vigorous, aggressive appearance designed to intimidate both hostile spirits and enemy raiding parties.
Even today, rivers serve as the primary means of transportation in the interior, and, like humans, sickness-bearing spirits travel by river. In former times, new figures were erected between the longhouse and the river at news of an approaching epidemic. These freshly carved images were consecrated through the sacrifice of pigs and fowl. During the ritual, each member of the community applied a small amount of pig or chicken blood to the figures, simultaneously empowering them and bringing them to life.
Aso: The "Dog-Dragon
An omnipresent motif in Kenyah-Kayan art is the aso, or "dog-dragon." Although the name literally means "dog," the aso is actually a supernatural creature that incorporates aspects of the dog, the dragon, and the climbing tendrils of forest vines. When carved in the round, aso are often doglike. When rendered in low relief, as on the handles and scabbards of swords, several dragonlike aso are frequently combined in a semi-abstract interweaving of bodies in which eyes, jaws, and other recognizable features can scarcely be perceived. Although some scholars speculate that the aso derives from dragons on Chinese trade ceramics (an important form of wealth among the Kenyah-Kayan), the pervasiveness of similar concepts in related Indonesian traditions makes it more likely that the creature is of indigenous origin.
In addition to warding off dangerous spirits, the aso serves as a status symbol. Only members of the high nobility are entitled to decorate their clothing and implements with full aso or human figures. The accouterments of lesser nobles can show only aso or human heads, while commoners are restricted to geometric motifs.
The Arts of War
Threats to longhouse communities came not only from spirits but also from human enemies. Until Dutch and British colonial authorities intervened in the early twentieth century, warfare and headhunting played central roles in the lives of Kenyah-Kayan men. Prowess as a warrior was central to male identity and social status, and some of the finest examples of Kenyah-Kayan art are found in the rich adornment of warrior's costumes and weapons. Many of the designs on Kenyah-Kayan weapons and war regalia had protective functions, but the monstrous faces and aso on shields and headgear were also intended to terrify human enemies and repel the spirits that brought bad luck on the battlefield.
Among the finest examples of Borneo metalwork are the brass ornaments that were attached to war helmets made from coiled basketry. Such ornaments often depict the human face, an emblem restricted to the nobility, in various degrees of abstraction. These remarkable objects offered protection from enemy weapons and served as marks of wealth and social rank.
Perhaps the consummate marriage of form and medium in Kenyah-Kayan art is exemplified in the warrior's ear ornaments carved from hornbill ivory. Derived from the beak of the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a large forest bird, this unusual "ivory" was a rare and valuable commodity both within and beyond Borneo. Many depict dragon-like aso carved with exquisite sensitivity and detail. Although ear ornaments are worn by both sexes, in the past only men who had taken enemy heads were entitled to wear those made from hornbill ivory.
The hornbill casque was highly prized outside of Borneo, so much so that Chinese emperors are reputed to have worn belt buckles of Borneo hornbill ivory.
Weapons were a central element of the male accouterments in this culture, and the supreme expression of Kenyah-Kayan weaponry was the sword, or mandau. Often each component-handle, blade, scabbard-of this remarkable sword was produced by a different expert. The finest examples had handles of deer antler adorned with aso and other supernatural subjects. The blades, created from local iron ores and inlaid with imported brass, were considered to be the finest in Borneo. The hot metal was said to have been quenched in the cold water of mountain streams, producing blades of superior strength. Iron was thought to have potentially dangerous supernatural powers, and the smiths were generally drawn from the nobility, who were likelier to be better able to control these potent forces. These smiths had personal guardian spirits and kept beads and other amulets among their iron-working tools to protect themselves from harm. Once the blades were forged, they were complemented with tufted handles, wooden or leather scabbards, beadwork, and amulets such as shells and animal teeth. The result was a weapon that was both physically and spiritually intimidating.
Among the most dramatic Kenyah-Kayan works are hudoq: ritual masks created to protect the rice crop. Rice is the staple food of the Kenyah-Kayan, and crop failure can mean starvation. In Kenyah-Kayan belief, rice has a female spirit or "soul" that can be attacked by malevolent spirits, resulting in a poor harvest. To protect the "rice soul," men don masks depicting fearsome creatures to frighten dangerous spirits from the ricefields. Armed with menacing teeth and adorned with tendril-like motifs, these brightly painted masks represent both human and animal forms. The masks are worn with shaggy costumes of banana leaves and are danced before planting and again at various times as the rice plants mature.
A second mask type, sometimes called a "soul-catching mask," was formerly used by shamans in curing rituals. During sleep or unconsciousness, the human soul is believed to travel outside the body. If the soul becomes "lost" on its journey, the body quickly sickens. When illness due to "soul loss" is suspected, the shaman, usually a woman, is summoned. The shaman goes into a trance and, using masks and other ritual paraphernalia, attempts to recapture the wandering soul. If the soul cannot be caught and restored to the body, the victim may die.
The Women's World
Kenyah-Kayan women are closely associated, both physically and ritually, with fertility and rice agriculture. While men participate in agricultural rituals, women have the primary responsibility for the rice crop that sustains the community. In addition to the dangers posed by spirits, the sensitive rice soul can be damaged if the plants are treated disrespectfully. To protect this delicate soul, women harvest each seed head of rice individually using special knives. The handles of rice knives, awls, mat-weaving equipment, and other women's implements are carved by men and frequently are decorated with monstrous protective images. In the past, when courting, men often made tool handles for women as a sign of affection. Beadwork is the most colorful and technically complex art form in the Kenyah-Kayan tradition and is created exclusively by women. Like the beadwork made by Native Americans and Africans, Kenyah-Kayan beadwork represents a creative fusion of indigenous aesthetics with imported materials. Using European seed beads traded upriver from coastal cities, women fashion intricate beadwork appliques for hats, baskets, and the unique carriers in which they tote their infants. Larger beads of many types are highly valued. Up until the early twentieth century, a single example of the most sought-after variety, known as lukut sekala, could be exchanged in Borneo for a human slave.Beads still are believed to have magical properties and often serve as amulets.
The ba' or "baby carrier," unique to central Borneo, is worn on the mother's back. The child sits inside, facing forward with its legs hanging free on either side of her body. This position allows the child to look out over its mother's shoulder or sleep with its head resting on her back. Children are carried in the ba' until about the age of two.
Most ba' consist of a plaited basketwork core overlain with beadwork appliques and have a semicircular wooden seat to support the child. Sometimes they are strengthened with decorative wooden struts, which are often carved in the form of miniature guardian figures. Some elaborate examples, known as bënning, are fashioned entirely from wood and inlaid with precious disks of Conus shell. Here again, the motifs on baby carriers reflect social status. Human and aso images adorn the ba' and bënning of the nobility, and those of commoners have geometric designs.Kenyah-Kayan belief, a child's soul is not yet firmly attached to its body, so the ba' must also protect the infant's soul from danger. If the soul wanders off or is lured away by spirits, the child may die. The carved or beaded images on the baby carriers please the child's soul and keep it nearby. As the mother walks, the rattling of the shells, teeth, and other amulets attached to the ba' repel harmful spirits that threaten the child inside and the ancient beads attached to baby carriers are said to "warn" the mother of approaching danger by making particular sounds.
Despite more than a century of field research and collecting in Borneo,Kenyah-Kayan art remains poorly documented. Much work has yet to be done to reach a fuller understanding of this remarkable tradition. Based on what we do know, however, what becomes clear is the tremendous depth and range of the Kenyah-Kayan artistic achievement. Using a wide variety of materials and techniques, Kenyah-Kayan artists have produced some of the most visually striking images in indigenous Southeast Asian art.
The objects from this tradition that we choose to call "art" may reflect a Western rather than an indigenous aesthetic, but given the exquisite craftsmanship of many Kenyah-Kayan objects, it is difficult to believe that their creators were not motivated at least in part by a sheer delight in form and ornament. To defend the longhouse from enemy raids, Kenyah and Kayan warriors armed themselves with beautifully decorated weapons, costumes, and shields. To drive off malevolent spirits, men and women adorned their bodies, their tools, and their dwellings with protective imagery. It is in the subtle interplay of object and image, of sacred and mundane, of natural and supernatural, that Kenyah-Kayan art and life intersect, as men and women and their creations together become the guardians of the longhouse.