In Focus

Tutelary figure

On rare occasions unusual carvings have been found in exposed riverbeds or along the muddy banks of the Wahao River and its adjacent tributaries. Usually, this occurs during periods of drought or when the courses of rivers shift. This particular figure was accidentally discovered by two Kenyah when a portion of it became snagged in their fishing nets on a small unnamed tributary off of the upper Telen River. Since around 1810 to 1815, this territory has belonged to the Wehea Modang people. Executed in an archaic style, this carving was created either by the Wehea Modang, or perhaps as its carbon date suggests by earlier occupants of the area.

Among the Modang, statues of protective spirits (meta) were incorporated into both chiefly houses (msow pwun) and common houses (eweang). In 1879, Carl Bock visited East Kalimantan and after laborious negotiations was allowed to see and draw the family mausoleum of Raja Dinda of Long Wai. This structure once housed the bones of a long line of paramount Modang chiefs. Now lost, it was already quite old when Bock encountered it. He noted that it was well made and composed of heavy ironwood.

Among the mausoleum's ornate decorations is a prominent figure that shares certain affinities with the Dallas statue. Judging from the height of the person standing under it, the singular effigy on the building's left side would have been approximately twelve to fourteen feet off the ground. The exaggerated brow and elongated jawline of the Dallas figure indicate that it, too, was meant to be seen at a height well above eye level. Both statues were clearly attached to or suspended from an architectural structure. The post protruding from the effigy's head has two large rectangular holes. This indicates that an interlocking mortise-and-tenon technique was used that evenly displaced the figure's weight using two longitudinal beams to secure it tightly to the main structure. Suspended, such a free-floating figure's gestures would have been especially animated.

Indonesia's finest traditional sculptors were masters at using angle, incidence, and natural lighting to heighten the psychological drama surrounding their creations. In its plasticity and complementary volumes, this statue reflects a deep understanding of how to use these attributes to the best advantage. Much like someone flexing his or her muscles to lift a heavy weight, the torso's expansive chest, arching back, and compressed and squared-backed shoulders strain and interact in perfect unison to successfully balance a massive head on a much smaller body. Even in its current fragmentary form, minus most of both its arms, lower legs, and male sex organ, it remains a compelling work of art. Just as geological time gradually sculpts features with a landscape, the wear of river currents has added to this figure's undeniable mystery by softly caressing and subtly altering its surfaces.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Tutelary figure," 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), 134–135.