A Bronze Vessel with a Tale to Tell

The Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam, bordering South China, Laos and Thailand

The Dongson culture, which occupied the Red River Valley in northern Vietnam from around 500 BCE to 2nd century AD, was famous for its sophisticated bronze artifacts particularly elaborate drums, axe heads, and small and large vessels.

Dongson tripod censer, Northern Vietnam, bronze, 1st – 3rd century BCE. 43 (H) x 40 (W) cm. Asian Civilisations Museum. The surface of the vessel features monster mask reliefs from which the ring handles are attached) and a pair of entwined scaly dragson in the middle of the vessel. A host of other animals such as the elephant, monkey, long-horned deer, birds, horses and a tortoise are depicted in relief at the bottom of the vessel.

The monster mask reliefs around the handle of this vessel is a relic of the Shang bronzes of ancient China (circa 1600 – 1027 BCE). Through trade and migration, this imagery went on to inform the artistic expression in virtually all of Indonesia, from the Batak tribes in Sumatra in the western part of the archipelago to the “Spice Islands” of Maluku in the east, a cultural transmission epic in both time and space.

Monster Faces in Indonesian Tribal Art

Gunpower holder, Batak people, Sumatra, buffalo horn. 19th century. The Wallace Collection (Singapore). The center section of this object is decorated with a mask-like face with three horns known as a singa (sanskrit for ‘lion’).
Shield, Dayak people, Borneo. Wood, pigment, 122 cm. 19th/early 20th Century. Photo: Thomas Murray. The center of this shield depicts a fanged deity whose face serves to frighten and intimidate the enemy.

Pendant from the famed “Spice Islands” of eastern Indonesia, featuring the face of a horned mask figure, Southern Maluku, gold alloy. 19th century. Private collection.

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