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Kenyah or Apo Kayan people

Finial for house or funerary vault

early-mid 20th century Place made: Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, paint
Dimensions: 185.0 h x 305.0 w x 32.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2010
Accession No: NGA 2010.345

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The largest island in maritime Southeast Asia, Borneo is home to an artistic tradition synonymous with the veneration of ancestral deities and spirits of nature. Objects and textiles made for ritual and everyday use are rich in curvilinear ornamentation and motifs of animals and supernatural creatures—including birds, serpents, dragons and ferocious beasts. Such imagery signifies rank and also invokes favour from benevolent ancestors and spirits while deterring malevolent forces.

This architectural finial created by the Kenyah or Apo Kayan people of Kalimantan epitomises the role of art as an indicator of status and a conduit to the supernatural realms. Composed of an intricate network of spiralling forms representing the sinuous aso—an amalgamation of dog and dragon—and the rhinoceros hornbill or kenyalang, the monumental finial would have been installed within a traditional longhouse or atop a communal dwelling, rice granary or funerary structure containing remains of the dead. From this position, the aso and kenyalang guarded the structure's occupants, living or dead, from dangerous supernatural forces.

Symbolising aristocratic rank, the combined serpent and bird imagery also represents an auspicious pairing of the heavenly upper and lower worlds. An inhabitant of the watery underworld, the aso is a female motif associated with fertility and abundance. The aso is depicted throughout Borneo with menacing jaws and limbs that are considered fearsome only by malevolent beings. In contrast, the kenyalang is a male symbol and the revered messenger of the ancestors and deities of the upper realm. Once employed as a spiritual weapon against enemy headhunters, kenyalang images with distinctive curvilinear casques are now used to attract fame and fortune for wealthy patrons.

This monumental finial, exhibited for the first time during the recent exhibition Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art, now takes pride of place near the entrance to the Gallery's permanent displays of Asian art, where it can also be admired from the NGA Cafe.

Niki van den Heuvel, assistant curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011

in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2010

Flamboyant finials decorate the rooves of longhouses and funerary structures in many traditional villages of Borneo. Composed of whimsical spiralling forms this finial appears to be the sinuous asoserpent, an amalgamation of dog and dragon. The eyes and beak of the hornbill, however, can also be discerned.

In the Kenyah and Kayan cultures, only the aristocracy are permitted to use sacred hornbill imagery. Here, the pairing of the serpentine aso, an image from the watery underworld and a female motif, with the hornbill, a male symbol of the upper realm, is an auspicious melding of opposite complementary symbols. Both animals act as guardians, protecting the house or ossuary and its occupants from dangerous supernatural forces.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011
From: Asian gallery extended display label