Aban, Baby Carrier Talisman

Kayan Dayak people

Not on view

Borneo, the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea, is divided among the three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei. While the coastal population is largely Islamic, the thickly forested interior is home to Borneo's indigenous peoples, known collectively as ‘Dayaks’. Living at the very heart of the island, the Kenyah-Kayan and related groups are Borneo's most accomplished Dayak artists. A striking form of women's art is the elaborate beadwork appliqué created for baby carriers.

As well as displaying the prestige and wealth of the family, the Dayak beaded baby carrier was created to give cosmological protection to a baby when it left the safety of the communal compound with its mother. It was believed that the souls of young children might easily wander and come into contact with disease and illness. Since the baby was strapped to the mother’s back where she could not keep constant vigilance, mothers would attach their babies to their carriers with prayer and the beaded panel (aban) acted as a barrier against potentially dangerous spirits who might approach from the rear. Popular motifs for the aban included protective dragons (aso), and the figures and faces of ancestor spirits such as this one. Used only when mother and baby were away from home, the baby carrier was hung with powerful amulets and wrapped in protective beadwork imagery to protect the child from these potentially malevolent influences.

This is a rare shell and beaded example of a talismanic panel (aban) embellished with a pair of ancestor figures who guard and protect against these malevolent spirits. The panel is woven from black-dyed plant fibers supported by several strips of plain barkcloth which creates a base layer. Rows of individual shell discs are secured with plant fiber cords to create a highly fluid and distinctive design. An imposing pair of squatting figures are positioned upright, with their legs apart. Their knees and arms are raised, and joined together in the middle, reaching up as if to support the border of the image in which they appear. One of the figures appears to turn their head slightly to regard the other. These are representations of the guardian spirits whose role is to protect the child from malevolent influences., likely ancestors of the clan from which the child comes. The negative spaces of the design are filled with small sections of red trade cloth carefully appliquéd onto the base alongside strands of tiny glass ‘pony’ beads in red, green, black, yellow, blue, and white which are secured with plant fiber cords. A strand of red seed (Adenanthera pavonina) beads runs along the outer border of the texile creating a frame for the image which is embellished further with several larger glasses of blue and green.

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