In Focus

Standing guardian figure (tepatung)

This statue was excavated from a river's bank in the upper reaches of the Mahakam River system in southeastern Borneo. It belongs to a small group of ancient pieces that have either been found in caves, or have been partially exposed as rivers rise and fall and change their course. This statue was partially exposed and then excavated from the riverbank of Sungai Belayan after the recession of a major flood. The Belayan River is a tributary off the middle section of the giant Mahakam River. This area was formerly the ancestral homeland of the Modang people. However, seventy-five to eighty-five years ago this region was taken over by Kenyah, Kayan, Tunjung, and Bauhau peoples.

This figure has an aesthetic relationship with other objects that can be traced back to both Indonesia's bronze age and the classic carving of the 18th and 19th centuries of a number of the regions peoples. One of Indonesia's most significant facial renderings is the so-called "heart-shaped face". Images in stone and in bronze with large curving brows that connect and continue down the nose's ridge, coupled with extended ovoid faces, and elongated ears are design elements that have survived in Indonesia for millennia. This statue is a precursor of the distinctive heart-shaped styled faces that were used by the Kenyah-Kayan peoples as well as by the Bahau, Tunjun, and Modang peoples.

This statue’s surface tells the story of two lives. Before it was toppled, the erosive wear on its crown, shoulders, and hips was caused by exposure to the elements. Its finely polished and abraded surfaces are consistent with its having reportedly been found protruding from a riverbank. Stylistically, this statue’s bold face is related to only one other documented piece, an elongated head attached to a hand grip or pole. While these two carv­ings belong to the area’s general artistic tradition, their salient features—long faces, pronounced double brow, and raised disklike eyes—are stylistic elements that no longer exist within the region’s aesthetic repertoire.[3]

The peripatetic patterns of Dayak peoples, including their disap­pearance or assimilation into other tribal groups, often make the identification of older substyles problematic. These two carvings, and a few architectural remnants that depict single or repeated animals, appear to be all that remain of a once vigorous, but now extinct, Dayak substyle. This statue does not belong to the Kayan, Lun Wehea, or other Modang peoples currently residing in the area where it was discovered.[4] However, the oral history of the Lun Wehea of Nihas Liah Bing does mention a Bahau ethnic group, the Lun Kalgak, who lived there before the Lun Weheas’ arrival. Through intermarriage, they were absorbed by the more numerous Lun Wehea around 200 years ago.[5]

Being able to invoke and harness the aid of one’s ancestors or other powerful beings is a persistent theme and impetus behind many Dayak creations. In former times, tutelary figures were placed along riverbanks adjacent to villages or mortuary sites. Imposing figures were also created in conjunction with rituals pertaining to prestige, fertility, or headhunting. Protective figural carvings were architecturally incorporated into aristocratic dwellings, men’s houses, and mausoleums. Images were also sometimes erected as temporary repositories for the spirits of departed elites. These carv­ings represented a physical form to which the journeying souls of ancestors could return and where they could be consulted regard­ing important omens or customary law.[6]

The exact function of this life-sized statue remains unknown. Its raised cupped hands may be those of a supplicant (or may repre­sent keen hearing abilities), but the saucerlike eyes, bared teeth, erect posture, and inflated and powerfully flexed limbs more likely suggest an alert sentinel poised to repel malevolent spirits or unwanted intruders. Here, the exaggerated muscularity of powerful animals—with their feral traits—has been brilliantly combined with the human form.[7] The result is a riveting presence, an otherworldly being, who in some capacity was used to reconcile and bridge the world of the living and that of the supernatural.

[1] This statue was originally published in Borneo and Beyond (Heppell and Maxwell, 1990: 8-9). At that time, it was said to have come from the Belayan River.

[2] Personal communication: Michael Palimieri, 1981; the piece was collected at Benhes in 1981.

[3] Since this piece was first published, it has served as a model for a revival industry that has been inspired by its unique style and weathered surface.

[4] Personal communication: Antonio Guerreiro, 2011.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Personal communication: Michael Heppell, 2010.

[7] Personal communication: Wellem Ingan, 2010. For example, contemporary carvers still refer to a figure's muscular, puffed-out chest as being burung dada, or bird's breast.

Adapted from

  • Steven G. Alpert, "Standing guardian figure (tepatung)," 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), 136.

  • "A Magnificent Archaic Excavated Dayak Statue" in DMA Education files.

Related Multimedia

Learn about the Dayak people.