Kayanic Art | Aesthetic Traditions of Borneo: Part I


Mythical Animal Table Leg
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Art of the Ancestors is dedicated to the presentation of masterworks of Island Southeast Asian art for our readership's perusal and further appreciation. This month, we are pleased to offer an initial assemblage of antique 'Kayanic' masterworks in American museum collections.


The artifacts featured here were created by indigenous groups that are either related by language, forms of tribal identity, material cultural, or extended history that are commonly, and often collectively, referred to as being "Kayanic" peoples or orang ulu, 'people of the upriver' living on interior river systems on the island of Borneo. (i.e.: Kayan, Kayaan, Apo Kayaang, Kayan Busang, Kenyah, Modang, Bahau, etc.) The works selected for this offering of Kayanic Dayak art are in the public domain and are, with two exceptions, drawn from the permanent collections of seven illustrious American museums.

Guardian Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Guardian Figure
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Massachusetts, USA


A number of the following masterworks hail from the Middle Mahakam river region in Kalimantan. There, the Bahau Saa', produced refined carvings that integrate Modang and Kayan components with their own distinctive aesthetic flair.


Carved Canoe Prow Ornament
© Penn Museum | Pennsylvania, USA


Finial of an Asu Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Mask Used in Healing Ceremonies
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Most striking among these artifacts are the hardwood baby carriers (katung), memorial and ritual posts (jihe), guardian figures (tepatung) and architectural carvings from memorial shrines or longhouses such as doors, surrounding panels, finials and house boards.


Bahau Baby Carrier
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Of further note are a substantial number of exquisite smaller scale items from this area now housed in the storied Indo-Pacific collection at Yale University, a few of which are illustrated here.


Flight Container for Poison Darts
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Bone Bottle Stopper
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Box Lid Depicting a Mythical Animal
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Bahau Figure
© The Fowler Museum at UCLA | California, USA

In the larger figurative realm, the Fowler Museum at UCLA has an extraordinary two-tiered double-figure.

Along with a corresponding pair in Paris, these three-dimensional panels were either placed at the entryway to a granary storage bin or arrayed as part of the general decoration of a chief's apartment in a longhouse.

Figure from the Top of a Funerary Post | Jihe
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


The Dallas Museum of Art also stewards seven Kayanic items that are de rigueur to the field. They include the finest warrior's headdress ornament known, a dynamic asymmetrically designed shield with a split spirit-face, the figurative top of a memorial post (jihe) from the Bahau Saa' or Bahau-Busang peoples, and a pair of mythical aso or Kayan dragon-dogs from Sarawak (which along with a single curvilinear carving with a porcine-like head at Yale) once served as the supporting legs of an aristocratic chief's table-seat.


Warrior's Headdress Ornament, Frontal Figure | Tap Lavong Kayo
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Warrior's Shield | Kelbit/Kelempit/Kliau/Talawang
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Mythical Animal Table Leg
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Pair of Mythical Animal Table Legs | Aso
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Perhaps the two most significant Kayanic statues in the Dallas Museum of Art are the early Modang tutelary figure, and the standing Bahau or pre-Bahau tepatung or guardian figure that was found on the Wahau river. The former was an ornamental figure that adorned an aristocratic sepulcher or another important structure.


Tutelary Figure
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Evidence of another similarly conceived and dramatically suspended free-floating figure was recorded by Carl Bock at Raja Dinda's now vanished mausoleum at Long Wai in 1879.


Raja Dinda’s elaborately carved family sepulcher near Long Wai. Courtesy of KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.


When, Sol Stanoff, the famous collector of African art, first saw the latter of the two statues, the Bahau tepatung, he opined: "With a piece like this, who needs a collection? Within this statue, you have an entire collection!" It is indeed the perfect guardian figure as it conveys a realized state of acute hyper-awareness. As a sort of boundary marker and early warning system, it was carefully placed along the shoreline, between the river and the longhouse to protect a house's inhabitants against all forms of unwelcome intrusion or malevolency.

It is, like its Modang counterpart, a unique, totemic work of art that stands as a testament to both their creator's skills and to being — miracles of survival — artworks that were only exposed when the courses of rivers changed. This piece was the central inspirational model for what has since become an industry within a demimonde that has been producing ersatz riverine or 'ancient' looking carvings for more than twenty years.

In recent times, it was considered fashionable to ascribe exaggerated dates to certain pieces using C-14 radiocarbon dating techniques, but as most have come to accept, this regime can only reveal a time horizon indicating when a particular sample of wood lived, and does not substantiate the date of when an artifact was actually crafted.


Standing Guardian Figure | Tepatung
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


With a piece like this, who needs a collection? Within this statue, you have an entire collection!”


Applied or carved Kayanic patterning is based on complex repertoires that are mutually intelligible to both local onlookers and to nearby groups. Motifs such as the tiger-dog (aso' lejau/sau lejiu), the monkey (kuyat, bruk), the lizard (kawuk), the dragon (la ngunan), the thunder god's visage (naang belare), masks (hudo'), or the imposing spirit face (naang beraang) and variously carved psychopomps are all routinely arrayed within the varying styles or forms associated with Kayanic art.

The use of mythical animals and folkloric creatures, particularly when combined with curvilinear designs (kelawit), foliage, spirals and diverse decorative motifs (kalung) seamlessly coalesce into some of the region's most visually arresting and dynamic compositions. The application and ostentatious display of these designs were thought to be able to protect high-ranking individuals while also serving to consolidate and project the identity and the social status of the person (or people), living or deceased, for whom these items were made.


Figurative Jar Lid
© Honolulu Museum of Art | Hawaii, USA


Women’s Workboard | Inv #: 2006.127.12
© de Young Museum FAMSF


Work Board for Beadwork
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Kayanic carvers and craftsmen were, and still are, masters in many mediums including wood, bamboo, bone, and cast and forged metals. At its finest, there is a great wealth of organic detail and exquisite workmanship to be found, both in many diminutive Kayanic utilitarian items all the way up to the largest and most grandly adorned of all carvings, the imposing fifty-foot memorial poles of the Punan Ba of Sarawak.


Sword Hilt Detail | Mandau
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore


Hudoq Dancers
© Tropenmuseum | Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

The items illustrated here most likely range in age from the late 17th / early 18th century through the 19th and up into the early 20th century. This presentation is our first in a series of installments that will celebrate older, distinguished, and diverse artforms from the island of Borneo (Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah & Brunei).

Going forward, we will continue to present insights, resources, and articles from noted specialist scholars of Borneo's vibrant material culture and history; such as Antonio Guerreiro, Bernard Sellato, Michael Heppell, and Albert van Zonneveld, while also actively seeking to publish the findings of local writers, anthropologists, and academics.

Thank you for visiting and please be sure to explore our expanding Borneo gallery!

Steven G. Alpert, founder of Art of the Ancestors


Totemic Punan Pole
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia


Hudoq Mask
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France


Special appreciation is due to my friend and colleague, Dr. Antonio Guerreiro, for providing invaluable cultural insights as well as academic rigor in the presentation of local names for a number of items and motifs.


All images and artworks presented in this feature are the property of the respective institutions credited.


Explore Art of the Ancestors Borneo Gallery

Warrior's Shield © Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Warrior's Shield
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Sacrificial Post |  Sapundu  © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Sacrificial Post | Sapundu
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Warrior's Ceremonial Shield © Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Warrior's Ceremonial Shield
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore


Further Readings on Borneo


Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art

Edited by Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven G. Alpert

Winner of the 2013 Prix
International du Livre d'Art Tribal

"Simply the best book ever published on this subject." — Sir David Attenborough

"Eyes of the Ancestors is the most comprehensive and compelling book on the subject since J.P. Barbier's Art of the Archaic Indonesians (1981) but this book offers so much more information in an impeccable package—making it an 'instant classic' and a 'must have' for anyone in traditional arts." — Alex Arthur, Tribal Art Magazine


Essential Texts

Avé, Jan B. (1973). Kalimantan, Mythe en Kunst. Indonesisch Ethnografisch Museum Delft.

Barbier, Jean Paul (1984). Indonesian Primitive Art: Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines from the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva. Dallas Museum of Art.

Heppell, Michael (2005). Iban Art: Sexual Selection and Severed Heads. KIT Publishers.

Sellato, Bernard et al (1989). Hornbill and Dragon: Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei. Elf Aquitaine.

Stöhr, Waldemar; Marschall, Wolfgang (1982). Art of the Archaic Indonesians. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. 

Zonneveld, Albert G. van (2018). Traditional Weapons of Borneo. The Attire of the Head Hunters. Volume 1: Shields and War Clothes. Sunfield Publishing.


Work Board for Beadwork
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA


Articles on Borneo from the Art of the Ancestors Archive