Fierce enemies, natural and supernatural, are met by equally fierce guardians in the art of the Kenyah-Kayan people of central Borneo. "Guardians of the Longhouse: Art in Borneo," on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 16, 2000, is the first show to survey the masks, weapons, beadwork, baby carriers, implements, ornaments and decorated architectural supports of the Kenyah-Kayan peoples. Much of it has never been on public view until now.
Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and the tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, is roughly twice the size of the British Isles. Muslims dominate the coastal areas of the island, but indigenous peoples, known collectively as "Dayaks," still rule the rainforests of the interior. The Kenyah-Kayan is a group composed of the Kenyah and Kayan peoples.
Until the early 20th century, war and headhunting were the predominant activities for the males, while the females focused on rice cultivation. The display of enemies' skulls in communal longhouses was believed to ensure a good rice crop and prosperity, but the Dutch and English put an end to the headhunting raids. Farming continues, as do many of the Kenyah-Kayan's spiritual traditions.This exhibition focuses on classic Kenyah-Kayan works of the late 19th to early 20th century.
Each village had at least one massive longhouse, often up to 300 yards long, with many individual apartments for separate families. Holding several hundred people, a central corridor formed a kind of "Main Street." It was originally elevated to resist attacks, and residents entered by a ladder.
Because entrances to villages and buildings are considered spiritually dangerous to the Kenyah-Kayans, the longhouse, set off from the forest, was decorated with protective guardian figures. Preventing malevolent spirits from entering the community or building, the guardian carvings are incorporated into the architectural elements and ladders of the longhouse, and line the paths leading up the building.
Guardians take the form of animals, humans and a hybrid of the two. A standard guardian figure is the aso -- literally a dog, but really a creature that is part dog, dragon and sinuous vine. The aso figure may only be represented in its entirety on the clothing and implements of the high nobility. The same goes for the human figure. Lesser nobility use the heads of the aso and humans, and commoners are confined to geometric designs. (At one time there were slaves in Kenyah-Kayan society, sometimes used as chattel.)
Standing out in their bright colors and exaggerated facial features are masks, also an integral part of Kenyah-Kayan culture. Masks are worn by men in ritual dances to protect the rice crop, or "rice soul," and by shaman women in "soul catching" curing rituals. "Soul loss," which can occur during sleep, is thought to cause illness, so the shaman dances and goes into a trance to recapture the soul.
Beaded baby-carriers help to keep the souls of small children intact. The children are held in the carriers on the mother's back until about the age of two, when their souls supposedly become more attached to their bodies. A woman makes a "bá" colorful with beads to please the child's soul, so it remains near her. The sounds of attached amulets, beads, and shells scare away malevolent spirits. Several are here, each radically different from the next.
Beads were always considered to have magical properties, and according to the curator, beadwork is the most technically complex art form of the Kenyah-Kayan. Though beadwork is created by women, it embellishes weapons, like the elaborate scabbard of a ceremonial sword, or "mandau." The blade, forged of local iron, was probably made by one worker, while another fashioned the deer antler handle animated by an aso and other supernatural beings. The Kenyah-Kayan blades were considered the finest in Borneo.
Eric Kjellgren, research assistant in the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Met, deserves kudos for "Guardians of the Longhouse." But if the Met could have just spent a bit of the $80 million devoted to their splendid new Greek galleries on this exhibition, there might have been a solid catalogue to record and discuss these fascinating works. Instead the show is forced to make do with a single-page black-and-white brochure, one sponsored by generous donors at that.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.