5590

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Borneo Cast Bronze Zoomorphic Ritual Kettle

Sarawak, Malaysia (Borneo)
18th-19th century

length: 45cm height: 37.5cm, depth: 28cm

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Provenance

UK art market

This monumental, massive brass or bronze kettle was cast in the 18th or 19th century on Borneo island, most probably in Sarawak state (now a part of Malaysia). It reflects all the preoccupations of the local people with fertility, rainfall and prosperity, along with Chinese influence which came via trade.

It stands on a wide foot that has been cast with lacy fern-like motifs.

The sides of the body are cast with two dramatic Borneo-type dragons and some fish motifs.  There is also a dramatic mask motif. Dong Son-like applied frogs decorate the shoulder of the vessel.

The lid is domed and decorated in low relief with a large river prawn and a fish.  The lid is surmounted by a strange, solid-cast, crouching creature with a prominent tail.

A spout is emitted from the mouth of a dragon-like creature and the aperture of the spout is protected by a hinged flap topped by a well-cast crouching tree frog.

The rococo-esque handle has been cast with water creatures.

Such a kettle was used not for heating or preparing beverages but for hand washing on ceremonial occasions, particularly by Iban people on Borneo – or it was simply used as a store of wealth, something to be possessed and traded, currency-like.

A kettle as large and elaborate as this one would have been used for special feasts only, particularly for weddings where wealth and ostentation needed to be on display, and only in wealthier households.

A related example is in the collection of the National Museum of Singapore and illustrated in Singh (1985, p, 22). Other examples are illustrated in Chin (1980, p. 46), and Taylor & Aragon (1991, p. 295).

Traditional brass and bronzeware from Borneo frequently exhibit strong Chinese influence such as dragon and fo dog motifs. Children’s stories that are still told today in Borneo feature tales of Chinese princes and dragons. One tells of a dragon that lives atop Mount Kinabalu (Borneo’s highest mountain) where it guards a magnificent precious stone the size of a peacock’s egg. The Emperor of China hears about the stone and tells his three sons that whichever one of them brings back the stone will be made his heir; the other two will be killed. One son manages to trick the dragon and captures the stone. But the other sons lie to their father that they were the ones to take the stone. Ultimately, the Emperor discovers this deception and the wayward sons escape China, one of whom returns to Brunei and founds a princely dynasty there.

The kettle is in fine condition and has a rich, dark patina.

References

Chin, L., Cultural Heritage of Sarawak, Sarawak Museum, 1980.

Singh, B., Malay Brassware, National Museum of Singapore, 1985.

Taylor, P.M. & L.V. Aragon, Beyond the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia’s Outer Islands, National Museum of Natural History/Harry N. Abrams, Inc,1991.

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