Why I Love Tribal Art: A Dayak Soul Boat

From time to time, I will post examples of “tribal art” of different cultures which I think are artistically and cultural compelling. This is the second installment in the series.

Spirit soul boat, Ngaju Dayak people, Central Borneo. Wood, 19th century. Length: 64 cm. Private collection.

Boat symbolism occurs throughout many island cultures of Indonesia. In part, this prevalence of the boat motif reflects the ancient maritime journeys undertaken by the Austronesian ancestors of present-day Indonesians. The motif has been appropriated by diverse tribes in the archipelago to mark life journeys, including that of a deceased to the afterlife. Soul boats serve this purpose. The finial of this soul boat by the Ngaju Dayaks of Central Borneo features the head of a hornbill, a powerful symbol of the upper world. The minimalist form of the sculpture gives it an archaic elegance that can be easily appreciated even by the nonspecialist.

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