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Qing dynasty (1644-1911) China
Pair of guardian figures late 19th century Place made: China
Creation Notes: Qing Dynasty
Materials & Technique: sculptures, ivory, wood, ink; carving
Dimensions: average 34.0 h x 8.8 w x 7.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Louis and Suzette, children of Kate and Ivar Berthet
Accession No: NGA 2001.214.1-2
Subject: Buddhist
  • bought by Ivar Berthet in China, c.1900
  • exported from China to Australia by Ivar Berthet, c.1945
  • by descent to his children Louis Berthet and Suzette Bartolozzi, who gave it to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001

Rice cultivation has long been of great importance to the Ifugao communities of the mountainous region of Luzon in the Philippines. Ifugao religion is based on ancestor worship and the veneration of spirits and gods of nature. Rice deities are particularly revered. Once activated through ritual, the bulol guardian figures are believed to contain spirits capable of ensuring abundant harvests, increasing rice yields and protecting against catastrophe. Shaped like a rice mortar, the distinctive base of the sculpture is a visual link to its spiritual purpose.

The pairing of male with female is a fundamental feature of Southeast Asian ancestral art. These bulol guardians represent the harmonious union of opposing elements, the protection of communities from malevolent spirits and the promise of good fortune.

Carved from auspicious red sandalwood, these sculptures are differentiated by their distinct genitalia, alluding to fertility and abundance. The figures have a rich patina of sacrificial blood and smoke resulting from their use in religious practice and life-cycle ceremonies. The hollow cheeks and angular facial features are striking characteristics of the traditional sculpture of Southeast Asia.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008