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Wooden hornbill figure (kenyalang)

Iban, AD 1970s
From Borneo, Pacific Ocean

From head hunting to contemporary art

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some people living in the tropical forests of Borneo were renowned for the fierce raids carried out by warriors who returned to the village with the heads of their enemies. Less a sign of victory, this was a display of a warrior's skills and the basis for his social status within the community. Because of the dangers involved, rituals and festivals were carried out to protect warriors. The Iban, living in the north-west of the island, developed elaborate carvings such as the hornbill kenyalang to invoke the gods during these ceremonies.

Head hunting in Borneo ceased with the influence of the colonial and later independent governments, but artists continued to make hornbill carvings. So-called because the basic shape is that of a hornbill bird, the imagery is now inspired mainly by contemporary Iban experience, as can be seen in this example from the 1970s. The designs are enhanced by the use of commercially available paints in a wider range of colours than provided by traditional dyes. Hornbill kenyalang are still made for Iban soldiers in the Indonesian army, but from being symbols of aggression, they have become an expression of Iban identity through their distinctive art form.

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