In Focus

Pair of mythical aso

An aso (dragon-dog) combines the traits of a powerful dragon with the awareness, speed, and fierce loyalty of a dog. Aside from their depiction on doors, wall panels, eaves, and the occasional figure, aso are most frequently seen on handheld items that were touched or grasped such as sword handles and their accompanying wooden scabbards or on tools, utensils, bowls, ornamented work boards, and baby carriers. As supernatural guardians, aso provided pro­tection against potentially meddlesome spirits and, in so doing, ensured the safety of their owners.

Finely decorated possessions and architectural elements with aso also glorified the status of the elite. Among the inherited pre­rogatives of Kayan chiefs and high aristocrats was the right to own beautifully decorated stools and low tables. This pair of stout mythical beasts once served as two of the four legs from an aristocrat’s table or bench. This pair was originally purchased with a third statue. The third leg is now at Yale University (ILE 2012.30.548); the fourth leg is lost. In for­mer times, aristocrats' benches were used primarily as chiefly seats, but are said to have also been used to receive ritual offerings while com­memorating wars in which the Kayan had been victorious.

While used only by a select few, ceremonial tables, seats, and rit­ual paraphernalia were decorated in such a way that they could be seen and admired at a distance. The scale of these aso is indicative of their importance. In its complete form, this table-seat must have been a truly impressive sight. Like a carved European throne replete with protective animals, it advertised the owner’s ability to claim or dominate space according to his social standing and birthright.

Here, artistry and craftsmanship work together in equal mea­sure. The upper section of the better-preserved of the aso’s tails reveals a deep ninety-degree horizontal notch that was intended to help support and distribute the weight of a single heavy slab of wood. To further secure the legs, peg-and-doweled construction was employed. That the animals face outward and that the aso’s fangs are bared, their bodies tensed for action, not only reaffirmed the nobility of its owner but also implied that whoever was sitting on, or whatever was being conducted on, this seat or table did so in a protected zone.

Most likely we will never know the detailed history of these aso aside from the fact that they were rediscovered in 1980 in Nottingham, England. These items were collected during the colonial era. They are rare survivors of the ravages of time, and each epitomizes Kayan artistry at its highest level of achievement.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Pair of mythical aso," 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), 130.

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