Borneo is the world's third largest island. It has been long renowned for its forbidding terrain and its fabulous array of native flora and fauna.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The territory of contemporary Borneo is divided between three nations; the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, the Sultanate of Brunei, and the Indonesian Republic which holds the lion's share of the island within the boundaries of Kalimantan. This island is crisscrossed by myriad rivers and vast expanses of primeval tropical forests. The term 'Dayak' is a collective appellation used to describe a wide range of Borneo's indigenous or ‘upstream’ peoples. Distinct from this group were the Islamic inhabitants of former coastal sultanates such as Sambas, Kutai, and Banjarmasin. Among the Dayaks are the last surviving handful of the Penan people, one of only three truly nomadic hunter-gatherer groups left on the planet. The Penan are now reduced to a small group of survivors, as distinct from the Iban, whose current population is over a million.

 
 
 

© Steven G. Alpert

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Philadelphia Museum of Art | USA

There are at least seventy-four known language groups on the island of Borneo, which are spoken in numerable dialects. Many Dayak groups share cultural similarities, but each has their own distinct language, social customs, and material culture. The legacy of oral traditions handed down through elaborate creation myths, heroic legends, and mythic songs define each group's local identity and inspire their artistic expressions. The masterworks presented below provide a broad and diverse representation of traditional Dayak artwork, ranging from the creations of the Iban and Ibanic peoples to the Punan Baa', Kenyah, Kayan, Modang, Bahau, Bahau Saa,' and the Ngaju and Ot Danum peoples of central and Southern Kalimantan.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The Ngaju and Ot Danum are well regarded for their carved funerary posts that depict the deceased and their exceptional tableaus found on their incised bamboo containers. The Iban excel at carving kenyalang, hornbill figures invoking Sengalang Burong, the god of war. These effigies were once displayed in procession at the gawai kenyalang; a ceremony formerly performed to celebrate martial victories that are now associated with the annual harvest festival.

Kayanic art is notable for the heart-shaped faces and fearsome musculature seen on protective figures. Intertwining mythical creatures and distinctive curvilinear designs are the hallmarks of their remarkable carving skills on utilitarian objects, baby carriers, work boards, architectural elements, and the doors of chiefs’ houses. These decorations were thought to beautify their surroundings, as well as protect their aristocratic owners. Elegantly realized mausoleums and coffins were decorated with psychopomps, powerful beings who carry the deceased on their journey to 'the land of departed souls.'

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Once noted as fierce headhunters, the accouterments of Dayak warriors are highly accomplished yet pragmatic works of art, most notably their combat shields. Dayak battle swords (mandau, parang ilang) vie for supremacy in their workmanship and blade quality with some of the finest weapons ever created in the archipelago. Forged from local iron at high temperatures and repeatedly dipped in cold running water to temper their hardness, the Ngaju poetically refer to their swords as 'Suluh Ambun Panyulak Andau,' which translates as “a torch of the dew announcing the new day."

In the feminine realms of artistic production, Dayak groups like the Ngaju and Ot Danum are held in high esteem for their intricate designs on split fiber mats. Women of the Maloh, Kenyah, and various Kayanic peoples excelled in beadwork. Iban women weavers fashioned exquisite ikats (pua kombu) and supplementary weft textiles (pua sungkit). To become a master weaver among the Iban, a woman had to attain a prerequisite level of expertise and receive permission from the spirit world through dream quests in order to transmit the most potent designs to cloth. Ceremonial textiles were displayed in a variety of ways to invoke blessings from the ancestors and the gods, to protect warriors, and to exhort menfolk to great feats in combat.  To this day, “Women’s warfare” (kayu induh) remains the denomination for the ceremony where threads are dyed and female prowess and determination are celebrated. The weaving arts are a powerful complement to the martial skills of the most vaunted Dayak warriors. 

 
 
 

Masterworks of Borneo's artistic heritage are well represented in global collections including The Sarawak Museum, The Tun Jugah Foundation, Museum Nasional Indonesia, Asian Civilisations Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, The Dallas Museum of Art, Honolulu Art Museum, The Fowler Museum at UCLA, de Young Museum, The Textile Museum of Canada, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Musée du Quai-Branly, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Weltmuseum Wien, and The British Museum.

Valuable insights regarding the art history and cultural legacy of Borneo can be found in the work of such commentators as Antonio Guerriero, Bernard Sellato, Michael Heppell, Vernon Kedit, Datin Amar Margaret Linggi, Albert van Zonneveld, Raymond Corbey, Traude Gavin, Lucas Chin, and Steven G. Alpert.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 

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

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

Guardian Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Sacrificial Post | Sapundu
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Warrior’s Shield
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Iban Ceremonial Weaving | Pua Sungkit
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

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

Warrior's Ceremonial Shield
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Painted and Carved House Panel
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Iban Ceremonial Weaving | Pua Kumbu
© Textile Museum of Canada

Carved House Panel
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Figurative Bone Hairpin
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Dayak Warrior's Headdress
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Benuaq Fine Fiber Weaving
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Detail of Warrior's Ceremonial Shield
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Hudoq Mask
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

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

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

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

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

Carved Threshold and Door
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Shrine Object with Figure Atop a Dwelling Flanked by Two Mythological Animals
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Figurative Bowl
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

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

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

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

Hudoq Mask
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Aso Figure
© Museum Nasional Indonesia

Iban Ceremonial Weaving | Pua Sungkit
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Figurative Sword Toggle
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

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

Hornbill Figure | Kenyalang
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

House Door
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

Execution Post
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Bowl
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Sword Hilt Detail | Mandau
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Headhunter's Sword | Mandau
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Painted and Carved House Panel
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Punan Ba'a Baby Carrier
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

Totemic Punan Pole
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

Totemic Punan Pole
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

Bowl
© Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum | Germany

Hornbill Figure | Kenyalang
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Kayan Tattoo Model
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Kayan Tattoo Model
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Incised Bamboo Container
© Weltmuseum Wien | Austria

Figural Carving
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

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

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

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

Large Carving of Human-Like Face
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Work Board
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

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

Iban Ceremonial Weaving | Pua Kumbu
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Hornbill Figure | Kenyalang
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Ornately Decorated Trophy Skull
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Iban Ceremonial Weaving | Pua Kumbu
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Hudoq Mask
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

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

Ritual Sword
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Totemic Punan Pole
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

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

Sword Hilt
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Warrior's Jacket Fashioned in Sungkit
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Warrior's Ceremonial Shield
© The British Museum | United Kingdom