This striking wooden hampatong sculpture is the newest addition to the National Gallery of Australia’s growing collection of fine animist art from Southeast Asia. Although textiles from the animist cultures of the region are a renowned strength of the Asian art collection, the Gallery holds only a few outstanding examples of sculpture from peoples who have continued to follow ancient beliefs in the power of nature spirits and ancestors.
The term ‘hampatong’ refers to a wide range of figurative sculptures created by the various indigenous groups of Borneo, collectively known as Dayak peoples. Rather than one homogeneous society, Borneo is home to numerous communities with differing customs, languages and distinct art traditions. These include the Bahau of central Borneo, whose stylised figurative sculpture is among the most powerful in Dayak art. In traditional communities such as the Bahau, many people still hold strong beliefs in benevolent and malevolent supernatural forces, usually embodied by spirits of nature, natural phenomenon (such as disease) and the souls of deceased ancestors. Festivals and rituals, and the art associated with such activities, are strongly focussed on ensuring that these forces remain in balance to protect communities and encourage prosperity.
The form and function of hampatong vary between different Dayak groups but they are generally carved from hardwood and include amulets and small figures for domestic use and large sculptures that are sometimes over two metres in height. The latter are placed near houses and village entrances, around agricultural fields and at funerary sites. Hampatong of all sizes are considered to have magical powers and may be used to predict future events and provide spiritual defence. Sculptures placed in fields usually remain in position until harvest time to strengthen the crop. Domestic images and hampatong placed close to communal houses often depict recently deceased ancestors and may have individualised human features in detailed carving. These sculptures provide a temporary home for the souls of the dead and are a personal expression of remembrance for deceased individuals. The ornate ancestor carvings also serve a protective spiritual function—they are a primary means of preventing disease from entering homes.
Conversely, village guardians and funerary sculptures are designed to ward off powerful evil spirits and are therefore more stylised, with aggressive facial expressions and imposing proportions. While anthropomorphic figures, animals, demonic beings and birds may be represented, they display common iconographic devices used to represent hostility. Most notable of these are protruding tongues, sharp fangs and prominent, staring eyes. Images of this type are closely related to funerary sculptures created by various animist groups across Southeast Asia.
Funerary rites are of central importance in the cultures of Borneo and the hampatong sculptures play an important role as spiritually charged objects providing protection and are a means of communicating with the realm of the ancestors. Textiles, jewellery and ritual utensils are also essential tools in the precisely orchestrated funeral ceremonies. Secondary burials, where bones are exhumed after a period of time to be ritually purified, are considered to be of particular cultural significance. These mortuary rituals traditionally include codified mourning practices, offerings and animal sacrifices. Their main purpose is to honour the dead, allowing the soul to journey safely to the afterlife, thus guaranteeing that it does not become an evil and bothersome spirit.
Recent radiocarbon testing reveals that the Gallery’s hampatong was created in the early to mid fourteenth century. Remarkably well preserved for its age, especially considering the typical effects of a tropical environment, it is likely to have been situated in a burial cave or under a large shrine structure for centuries. A rare and elegant animist sculpture, the Gallery’s hampatong is over a metre in height, and has an angular, stylised body. The large, round eyes, sunken cheeks and open mouth with bared teeth suggest that it originally served as a protective village guardian or a grave–marker. The frightening geometric facial imagery is characteristic of sculpture created by the Bahau people of east Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.Lucie Folan
in artonview, issue 55, spring 2008