Cultures & Traditions

Dayak Ceremonial Objects: Then and Now

The open inner veranda that spanned the length of a traditional Iban Dayak longhouse (ruai) was a gathering place for neighbors and a setting for many social activities. It was also an area of cre­ative interaction or friendly competition which, according to such ethnographers as Derek Freeman and Michael Heppell, could at times reflect an almost palpable tension. In one sense, the com­munal area of a longhouse also provided a stage where others could see what was being made, observe techniques, and judge finished products. Creative tension and flirtatious behavior alike began at a young age; for example, boys might have carved bamboo or cre­ated ornaments to express their youthful ardor, while girls learned how to weave short skirts (kain kebat) that would elicit comments like buah gantung sengayuh , “men stop paddling (so a man will look at you).” In this, and in many other youthful activities, competi­tive instincts were sharpened, and a hierarchy of the able would begin to unfold. Socially, the Iban have always been considered relatively egalitarian (as opposed to the more stratified Ngaju, Kayan, and Kenyah peoples). Still, young persons would naturally tend to gravitate toward mates whose proven abilities and status equaled their own.

For Iban women, the highest accolades revolved around weav­ing and the secrets of properly applying dyes and fixatives. The term kayu indu, or “women’s war,” refers to ritual actions performed during the gaar or dyeing ceremony that were complementary to headhunting. Textiles used in conjunction with headhunting ceremonies aided and protected warriors. Certain designs championed by women for this purpose were employed to praise, encourage, and even goad their menfolk to greater valor and victory. In the 1970s, one could still encounter a few old men and women sport­ing tattooed hands. Formerly, this was a sign of prowess reserved for successful Iban headhunters and their counterparts, the most gifted weavers.

Once, young Iban men went on an adventurous journey to amass wealth and prestige by acquiring gongs, Asian trade jars, and above all else, human trophy heads. This drive is still embodied in the modern meaning of bejalai: a time when young men routinely leave their longhouses to seek work in towns, in the timber indus­try, or in mono-agriculture, or when students or adults journey far away from their homes to further their educations or seek self-advancement in politics, business, and in all walks of life.

While the impetus and the tensions involved in creat­ing ceremonial objects have abated in modern times, beadwork and carving still continue to be created in sometimes innovative, albeit more contemporary forms. Among all the traditional arts, the famed weaving skills of the Iban are particularly enduring and still flourish. Today Dayak visual culture, with its anthropo­morphic creatures and their bold curvilinear designs, is actually best known to outsiders as a component in the lexicon of “New Tribalism.” Since the 1980s, this moniker has been associated with a creative explosion that celebrates a fusion of traditional Dayak and Pacific tattooing motifs. Its immense worldwide popularity has also sparked a revival of tattooing, which forty years ago was rapidly disappearing and seemed doomed to extinction. This phe­nomenon, along with eco-tourism, is inspiring in younger people a new interest in Borneo and its indigenous cultures.

While the Dayak art in the Dallas Museum of Art stands as a remark­able testament to a way of life that no longer exists, the groups that produced it continue to thrive as vital living cultures. The Dayak, echoing the story of the destruction of the sanggaran, or mythic tree, are ably adapting, reseeding, and perpetuating themselves to accommodate modern challenges. Where will their artistic expres­sions take them? Wellem Ingan, a master Kenyah craftsman, not only carves commissions for foreigners, but still carves for tradi­tional Dayak purposes. Recently, when asked his thoughts regarding the Dayak sculpture and metalwork in the DMA collection, he replied: “These items are well kept in Dallas, which I appreciate and respect. That’s good. [As a carver] I would like to have images of these pieces so as to better understand, envision, and be further inspired by objects that I have never seen.”[1]

[1] Personal communication: Wellem Ingan, 2010.

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), 117-123.