Hornbill Figure

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Malaysia, Borneo, Sarawak

Culture: Iban people

Medium: Wood, paint, glass beads, metal

Dimensions: H. 27 x W. 44 in. (68.6 x 111.8 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, The Fred and Rita Richman Foundation Gift, 2007

Accession Number: 2007.359


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 hornlike projection typically depicted, as here, as a spiral form. In Iban religion, hornbills are associated with the upper world, and they were once identified with warfare and headhunting. In Iban cosmology, hornbills serve as intermediaries between the powerful deity Singalang Burong and the human world. Hornbill effigies receive offerings during the gawai kenyalang, a ceremony that in the past could only be sponsored by a prominent war leader or his descendants. They are also used in similar rites called gawai burong. At the climax of the ceremony, the sacred hornbill image, lavishly decorated for the occasion, is elevated atop a tall pole inserted through a hole in its body. Between ceremonies, it is preserved in the loft of the communal longhouse.