The best traditional Dayak art can compete with the most beautifull pieces from Melanesia and Africa, which are seen as the best by authorities of traditional arts. The expressife woodcarvings, the weavings and the colorfull beads of the Dayak are imaginary all over the world. But not all Dayak have a big artistical tradition, and styles and motived vary strongly with every population. Unfortunately, Dayak art of good quality is hard to find. For old woodcarvings, traders have to go deep inland. Some pieces are worth a smalll fortune in Europe and America.
New pieces, most of them are copies of old originals and sometimes made on Jawa or Bali, miss the appearance, the 'soul' of the old worl. The traditional religions, from which the artists get their inspiration, have been replaced by christianity or islam, or have at least been strongly influenced by it. It's a sad thing that most of the nice art of Borneo can be seen in European museums.
Still there is some original art to be seen in the inlands, an experience that no museum can beat. The more upstream villages along some rivers in Kalteng and the villages in the Melawi beaken are scattered with excessively decorated graves and other ceremonial grave decorations.
In Apokayan, the longhouses, rice sheds and recent communal houses of the Kenyah are extensively marked in their typical baroc style. Most locations where traditional arts can be seen are far from the paved roads and a difficult place to reach.
Authorities of Borneo art are looking for the source of the branding Dayak motives on he mainland of Asia, especially in China and Vietnam. The art forms of the Dongson culkture, which had it's climax between 300 and 100 B.C., have spread over big parts of the archipelago. On Borneo, the spiral and the repeating of bend lines form motives that can be brought back to the Dongson culture. Human and amimal-symbols are not created seperate, but in the middle of repeating geometrical motives.
In other parts of Indonesia, hour-glass shaped, bronze kettledrums were found, richly decorated and sometimes as big as a human, which showed much information about the Dongson forms of art. On Borneo these drums have not been found until now.
The (Chinese) culture of the late Chou-perios 0 400 until 200 B.C. - has had clearly more influence on the Dayak culture than the Dongson culture had, however their influence elsewhere in the archipelago is strongly limited. The Chou style of art can be seen in the beautifull symbols of animals in big compositions, which bring together a number of asymmetrical patterns. But the influence of the Chou is especially shown in the masks and shields, which are decorated in an unique way in Indonesia. But also the pua, a fine fabric that is woven by the Iban, shows Chua influences; the motives cannot be found elsewhere in Indonesia.
Dragons and Tigers
Hinduist influences reached Borneo about 2000 years ago from Jawa. The most important, still visible contribution of Hindu art are the dragon and tiger motives (there are no tigers on Borneo, and also no dragons). The dragon is even used in the islamized Malay culture of Borneo. Because of the many movements of Dayak people, and their big cultural flexibility, it's hard to say wether certain motives belong to a populaton or not. This is especially true for what the Kenyah and Kayan concerned, which show strong resemblance in a cultural way. Since the spirits and other supernatural creatures in the pantheon of many Dayak populations are the same on the whole, art forms were easily taken from or influenced by a population to another.
In the artistic expressions of the Bahau, Kenyah and Kayan is often a asoq to be seen, a stylized 'dog-dragon'. This animal, which is said to have protecting powers, shows relations with a very ancient mythological. The animal-like behaviour is still are honoured and loved. Among many Dayak populations a combination of fantastic-animal habits are common in ancestral rituals.
In the art of the Dayak, frightening animals were used to scare bad spirits and enemies. The shields of the Kenyah, Kayan and Bahau were often decorated with hypnotising eyes and mouth full with dangerous teeth. These images can also be found on the masks and graves which are made by the handscaftsmen of these populations.
Art and Religions
Most Dayak art was, and still is, closely related with religion and social organisation. The burial sites are a good example of that. Besides the graves thwere are woodcarved pillars where sacrificed animals are put up - earlies that were slaves. The Ngaju, Ot Danum and other Dayak have extensively decorated graves and bone-shelters. Aristocrats got the most extensive funeral and their graves were decorated with special motives. They were more powerfull than other people, and so it was accepted that their spirits also had the most power in the after-life.
The Dayak know a big variety of different religios habits, but their traditional image of the world and religious rules are about the same. The communal environment and living habits - living from rice cultures along big rivers in the rainforest - was the most important part.
The Dayak think that their natual environment is populated by good and bad spirits, which can be manipulated by rites, sacrifices anmd artistical expression. From the religions there is a vague picture of a single God which has more power than the others, the Creator, but that didn't have a special meaning: he had done his work and that was it. With the arrival of christianity, this God got more important when missionaries were looking for resemblances between christianity and the local religions.
The most extensive theme in the traditional Dayak religions is the dangerous and adventurous journey to the soul of the deceased to the hereafter. This heavenly land is often associated with the remarkable mountain peaks in the (former) habitat of the populations. This is the location where the soul stays until it turns back to the earth.
Most populations think that the human has two souls. One is guided to the hereafter after death. The potentially dangerous second one is born then and will stay in the neighborhood where it will also start it's journey to the land of the souls. The ritual, which has to protect the souls during it's journey, most of the times consists of a reburial, in which the bones of the deceased are re-buried. There are many different ways to do this.
In the wake of a re-burial the body is put in a coffin or urn, in house or on another place, until the proces of decay is completed. Then the bones are taken out on a good time and placed in a new grave or bone-site. This happens during a ceremony, which can last for weeks in case of an aristocrate. During the ceremony, a dozen water buffalo's and a hundred pigs is slaugthered.
As well as among the Ngaju as the Dayak which are influenced by them the long, woodcarvings are important during complex burial ceremonies. The grave, named sandung, is a beautifull decorated 'house', about two meters above the soil, which rests on one to five pillars. During the re-burial, the bones of the deceased are placed in a small room in this grave. The sandung often shows images of the rhinoceros-bird, the symbol of the upperworls, and a watersnale, symbol of the underworld.
During the climax of the ceremonian re-burial, the priest decides that the soul can start it's journey to the land of the souls. On that moment, the waterbuffalo which is tied to the sepunduq - the sacrifice pawl -, is killed by the family of the deceased by javelins. Pigs are also sacrificed. Earlies, more often slaves were sacrificed than animals. The sepunduq often contained the best pieces of woodcarving in the form of demons with big teeth, big tongues and long noses.
The highest and most complex woodcarving which was related with the burial rites of the Ngaju is the sengkaran, a six-meter-high pawl which supports a rhinoceror-bird, which flies over a bunch of arrows. The arrows cross the back of the watersnake, which is supported on a Chinese can. The sengkaran mirrors the cosmos with it's positive and negative aspects in the form of animals, and it's also seen at the tree of life.
A specific thing of the Ngaju-culture are the soul- or death-ships, very small sailing ships, manned by spirits. The boat serves to bring the soul to the hereafter. nowadays the ships are made from guttapercha, and especially for the tourists.
The Ngaju-burial rites spread before the arrival of the Europeans over Central-Borneo. The kaharingsan religion (in fact a traditional religion which was names 'kaharingan' by the Ngaju in the 1950's) is - partially taken by the Dayak in Eastern and Western Kalimantan. The religion knows a ritual re-burial (tiwah), in which much of the previously called espressions of art have a role.
But also the Kenyah, Kayan and Kajang, which lived north of the influence of the Ngaju, built decorated graves for their aristocracy. These structures, called salong, are on massive pillars, high above the soil. They were decorated with woodcarvings and paintings in the form of birds, dragons (watersnakes) and human figures.
The mayority of the three populations has been christianized, but the graves are still constructed in the original way. On top of the grave there usually is a stylized bird or fish, but some modern sculpturers change with the time, so it seems on a grave in Apokayan: the grave of a woodlogger is decorated with a chainsaw, another with a plane.
Other Forms of Art
Especially the longhouses of the Kenyah, Kayan and related populations are big forms of art. The ironwood constructions which cover an entire village, are built more than two meters above the soil on a bunch of pillars. Colorfull woodcarvings covers the stairs, doors, walls and roofs. The longhouse looks like a giant doll-house, in which wild, baroc fantasies are worked out.
Long pillars with a woodcarved figure on top used to be very common on Borneo. Near the entrance of villages, longhouses and burial sites, the hampatong served to scare away bad spirits. The Kenyan, which left Apokayan over the last 50 years, had a new destination to the pillars. In front of their communal houses, which have replaced the longhouses, are woodcarved pillars in which, in special occasions, the Indonesian flag is hoisted.
On important moments of the rice-cycle - planting and harvest - some Dayak hold a mask dance to protect the rice from the bad spirits. Big masks with long noses and big eyes are called hudoq. Another interpretation of the dance is that the masked dancers are copying ancestors, which don't want the harvest to be destroyed by bad spirits. TGhe hudoq-masks are still in used among the Kenyah, Kayan, Bahau and Modang.
Agricultural tools was decorated with woodcarvings to protect it from bad spirits and for demanding supernatural help for a good harvest. Products like faberics, baskets, mats, hats, chair, plates and pots were carved with special motives which were related with something supernatural.
Special attention was (and is) given to the special carriage-baskets for baby's, since the souls of the children - just like with young rice - are very vulnerable. Woodcarvings and beads as well as claws and teeth from bears and leopards, serve to protect if from evil. Old beads, which have been in one family for generations, are seen as very strong talismans for children.
During wars, every protectional spirit was asked for help. Flying patterns of several birds (kingfishers, hawks and brown woodpeckers) were studied and seen as a omen. Art also was important at that time. Warshields were painted in such a way that the outside brought bad luck to the enemy, while the inside brought extra strength to the user. The mandau, a short fighting sward made of locally found iron, is seen as a jewel of art and techonogy. The knife itself, made by a specialist, was often well-made with a notched blade. The handheld, often made from deer-horn, was sarved in fluent patterns. The mandau not only were nice, but also flexible, rustproof and of superior quality. The best were made by the Kayan and Bahau.
Modern Dayak Art
Art of good quality on Borneo is hardly made. Modern arts are modelled after example of an old piece, but they have an uninspired, emply look. There are several good exeptions, the baby-baskets of the Kenyah and Bahau.
The good prices which are paid for Dayak art, have a positive influence on the artisticallity, but they can't destroy the long time of suppression by islam and christianity at once. It it to be hoped that the kaharingan religion inspires people to make more objects with the same powerfull radiation as the old ones. Until now the modern woodcarvings that are made for the kaharingan rites is no more than a weak substraction of the old works.
There is also hope for better times in the roman-catholic areas, where the church traditionally encourages all forms of art. Ironically the best woodcarvings are used as decorations of churched, deep in the heart of Borneo. Protestant areas, where traditional art is usually not too popular, look very shy. Of the about 3 milion Dayak on Borneo, the Kenyah, Kayan, Bahau and Modang have the best kept old forms of art. The everlasting respect for the aristocrats is a partial explaination for it. However the aristocracy lost most of it's priveleges, in comparison, they are still doing good, and sometimes they also export an object.
The beter and better to reach locations where you can see traditional art, are the Kenyah villages Long Segar and Long Noran along the river Kedang Kepala and Data Bilang along the Mahakam. The few Kenyah which stayed in Apokayan also make new objects to old examples. They can be seen in the communal building in Nawang Baru.
In Long Ampung, the longhouse annex communal house is decorated with traditional as well as modern motives: a hunter shoots wild with a gun, and a person, which doesn't look like a Dayak at all, lifts it's hands in fear or joy.
In Apokayan, mandau, baby baskets, baskets and big hats with colorfull beads are still made, but the most - partially imported - products are undecorated.
Between Art and Souvenir
Tourism had lead to a growth of the production of 'art'. All souvenir shopw have mandau in storage and many shops in Kaltim sell sets of miniature weapons, which are not only loved by tourists, but are also on the walls of the homes of locals.
Kaltim is the most visited province of Kalimantan, and it's also the location where most antique- and souvenirshops can be found. Some shop owners regularly travel inland ito buy art objects and to order special items. Other shops buy bainted shields, woodcarvings and masks from the Dayak which have settled in Samarinda.
In other provinces the choice is more limited. In Kalsel, Kalbar and Kalteng, you can buy plenty of soul ships, as well as in the Sarinah departmentstores in Jakarta. The ships are made in several Ngaju villages along the downstream of the River Kahayan.
Antique Dayak art is hard to find; the shops are full fakes ones. The copies are made by Dayak, but also on Jawa and Bali, for local sale as well as for the Borneo market. Some objects are thst good that even authorities have a hard job distinguising them from real ones. The copies, made after images, are put outside for a few year to give them the right color. Others are polished on special places, so it likes that they have been used for generations.
Real antiques are rarely brought on the market. A trader can sometimes find a real one in a far-away village, but the few real old objects still have their spiritual meanings, so they are not given away just voernight. Once in a while, a village in need of cash will sell such an object, but they only are paid a real low price.
Foreigners which hunt down villages are often disappointed. Even the highly demanded new objects like baby-baskets are hard to get. These tools are very hard to replace. Foreigners who inform about the price are told a very high amount, as it is only meant to get it out of their mind to bid on it. Only when an owner desparately needs money, there is a small chance it will be sold.
A different occasion if Tanjung Isuy along Danau Jempang, the most visited village of Kalimantan. Touristm stimulated the production of traditional fabrics from natural fibres, a form of art which has gone elsewhere. Because of the current availability of modern clothing, this fabric is only available in Tanjung Isuy and the living habitat of the Iban in Sarawak. Tanjung Isuy is easy to reach from Samarinda, and is gives a - somewhat uninspiring - impression of several Borneo traditions.
A revival of the Dayak art is made or killed by the demand from (mostly foreign) consumers. As long as tourists demand cheap souvenirs, the artists are not expected to work on an object for months, exceptions are the areas where the religious traditions are still very strong. Only when the Dayak see their artistical skills better valued, there is a chance that European museums get competition.