Cultures & Traditions

Dayak Arts: Creations for purpose and pleasure

The languages of Dayak peoples have no traditional words for art or the making of art. Dayak artists viewed objects in perhaps a more unified sense, in which art and craft were seen as one and the same. Dayak artists cre­ated inspired carvings, weavings, plaited fine mats and baskets, decorated bark cloth and beaded garments, crafted jewelry, and a wide array of ornaments. They also excelled in tattooing, metal­work, and the creation of architectural embellishments.

The Dayak were exceptionally skilled at forging swords. High-quality iron ore deposits were known to have been found on the Mantikai, Tayan, Apo Kayan, and Montalat Rivers. Groups that controlled a source, or the flow, of ore and had the ability to make fine-edged weapons presumably possessed a competitive advan­tage over their neighbors in terms of both warfare and commerce. Their blades were forged at high temperatures and then immersed in cold water. The Ngaju have a poetic description for such tempered swords, suluh ambun panyulak andau, “a torch of the dew announcing the new day.” Heirloom blades rarely rust and retain a sharp edge. Often they are beautifully worked, the flattened surface etched or inlaid with brass, then fitted with an elaborately carved handle and ornamented sheath.

Iban textiles are notable, too, for their intricate patterning. In addition to displaying techni­cal virtuosity, the designs on the finest, most highly valued cloths were inspired and countenanced by dreams. While a weaver’s basic repertoire of motifs was actually fairly limited, individual design elements could always be slightly altered and then recombined into limitless variations. The resulting patterns, as well as the praise-names attached to individual cloths, were drawn from both the natural and supernatural worlds, and their mythical heroes reflect the ethos of a warrior people. To ensure the inner potency of certain cloths, only its weaver and persons privy to her knowledge were fully apprised of their deepest meanings. Even so, beyond any hidden or esoteric content, there was a general familiarity with most patterns, as they were publicly displayed during ceremonies. Hung, folded, or draped over ceremonial constructions or laid on the floor during important rituals, textiles assisted in demarcating sacred space as they afforded protection and invited the blessings of the ancestors.

Unlike ancestors or deities, who were considered remote, spir­its (antu) inhabited the nearby forests. They could take on many forms and easily traveled along Borneo’s rivers. Antu were said to be able to enter anything, including longhouses. At times, these spirits could be benign, or made useful, but mostly they were omi­nous. Certain places or activities (often associated with the idea of transition) created potential openings for them. As a result, one’s sense of vulnerability was heightened when approaching a shift in the landscape, at intersections, in and around doorways, or while deeply concentrating on a task. Consequently, Dayak artistic creations and their intricate overlay of designs were often associated with some form of personal protection. In addition, an item’s embellishment often revealed its owner’s rank, level of prestige, or specialized knowledge.

In Dayak societies, ritually consecrated carvings also served as intermediaries between the living, the ancestors, and the super­natural. Among the most evocative creations are those effigies and magical charms that combine figural and powerful animal-like traits. Much of what we now consider works of art were originally used in conjunction with healing the sick, perpetuating healthy crop cycles, going to war, receiving blessings from the ancestors or deities, or assisting the dead on their souls’ journey.

From per­sonal items to ritual creations—whatever their purpose or level of importance—objects and textiles that affirmed a group’s notion of having been “correctly and expertly” made engendered stability. In the spirit of duality that permeates everything Dayak, beauty was not only desirable but also purposeful and essential. Something well done or well made assisted in influencing positive outcomes, both with other people and with the spirit world.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Borneo: The Island-Its People," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 119-120.