Purchase, The Fred and Rita Richman Foundation Gift, 2007
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 355
The largest sculptures of the Iban people of northwestern Borneo are stylized images representing the rhinoceros hornbill (kenyalang), a large forest bird whose beak is surmounted by a horn-like projection, typically depicted, as here, as a spiral form. In Iban cosmology, hornbills are associated with the upper world and formerly, with warfare and headhunting. They serve as intermediaries between the powerful deity Singalang Burong and the human world. Hornbill effigies are the centerpiece of the gawai kenyalang, a ceremony that, in former times, could only be sponsored by a prominent war leader or his descendants. They also are used in similar rites called gawai burong. At the climax of the ceremony, the hornbill figure, lavishly decorated for the occasion, is erected atop a tall pole inserted through a hole in its body, such as that which appears on the present work. Following the ceremony, the sacred hornbill image is preserved in the loft of the communal longhouse and brought out to receive offerings during future gawai kenyalang or gawai burong.
Collected Sarawak, ca. 1978; private Indonesian collection, until 1994; [Thomas Murray, Mill Valley, CA, until 2007]
Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 100–03.