343. A Dayak ‘Soul Boat’

Kenyah-Kayan style,
Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Borneo, 19th century
Size: 115 cm long, 26 cm high, 30 cm wide.
Hardwood, shells and glass beads

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The Kenyah-Kayan live in massive communal longhouses along the Kayan, Mahakam and Rejang rivers in central Borneo, and are the most aesthetically accomplished of the Dayak peoples. The men were head-hunters, displaying the heads of their enemies in the longhouse gallery. When headhunting was forbidden the Dayaks experienced a prolonged cultural nervous breakdown: how could a man hope to bed a bride without a couple of heads on display? Their cosmos is divided into an Upperworld and an Underworld, and their decorations are designed to keep away the malevolent influences of the various spirits that abound in forests and rivers.

The Aso, which decorates this ‘Soul Boat’, is a protective super-natural creature, combining dog, dragon and forest vine tendrils, characteristic of Kenyah-Kayan art and curiously reminiscent of Celtic art. Funeral accoutrements were important among the Dayaks, and a coffin such as this would have been placed on the veranda of a longhouse. Like the heads of enemies, the bones of the community were regarded as the sustainers of life. Noble members were represented by the Aso, and attended by elaborate rituals. Such a coffin could not by custom be brought up the steps of a longhouse, and therefore a hole was made in the veranda for it to be hoisted into place.

Another ‘Soul Boat’ was exhibited at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, in 1994 in an exhibition entitled Arc of the Ancestors, Indonesian Art from Jerome L. Joss Collection at UCLA (catalogue no. 40). The first major exhibition of Dayak art was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999–2000.