Kenyah People, Sarawak (Borneo, Malaysia)
circa 1940 or before
length: 48cm, height: 11.8cm
The decorative elements of this dramatic and highly decorative carved wooden bowl are typical of Kenyah wood carving. Two ancestor figures are at either end amid the typically spikey leaf flourishes commonly employed on Dayak crafts. Traditionally, bowls and dishes with spirit or humanoid figures such as this example were used for animist rituals and to make offerings.
The dish is in very good condition (but with one old break and mend to one of the thin carved elements). The dish was acquired in the UK from an old collection. Almost certainly it has been in the UK since the colonial era. A 1940s dating might be conservative.
Related bowls are in the Sarawak Museum and illustrated in Chin (1980, p. 82).
The Kenyah together with the Kayan, the Kajang and the Punan people of Sarawak on Borneo island have been particularly skilled woodcarvers. The eaves and other parts of their longhouses, the prows of their longboats and indeed any other items of wood all were embellished with elaborate, decorative carving. Traditionally Dayak groups followed animism, elements of which are apparent in traditional Dayak art. Traditionally certain groups and most particularly the Kenyah practiced headhunting but this died out with the influence of Christianity, Islam and intervention by colonial administrators.
Decapitation was not the result of a wanton desire to kill but only occurred in order to transfer the spirit of the deceased to a specified other person. It was symbolic of control and demonstrating the sphere of influence that one group had over another. Among some Dayak groups, before a head was severed, the was an undertaking to fulfil the victim’s final request to care for his descendants up to an d including the seventh generation, an act that was designed to demonstrate honour to the victim (Hardianti & ter Keurs, 2005).
UK art market
Chin, L., Cultural Heritage of Sarawak, Sarawak Museum, 1980
Hardianti, E.S. & P. ter Keurs (eds.),
Indonesia: The Discovery of the Past, KIT Publishers for De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 2005.
Inventory no.: 1163
A Dayak chief.