This is why I love Tribal Art: A Dayak Guardian Figure

Standing in a corner of living room is an ancient tribal sculpture made by an unknown artist of the Dayak tribe in Indonesian Borneo. Here it is:

And here’s a close up:

This figure represents an ancestor, who in its sculptural incarnation, served as a house guardian or protector. Carved from iron wood and measuring 26 cm tall, it would have been stuck on the grounds outside a villager’s home, one of many such totems. Deep groves run along the length of its limbless body, the result of centuries of exposure to the elements (it takes a lot to erode iron wood!) Erosion has erased all facial features save the nose and eye sockets, which stare eerily into space, as though it is eternally alert to any malevolent spirits that might lurk around to bring harm to the living.

Most people are not tribal art collectors like I am. So I perfectly understand if they find this figure “non-artistic”, maybe even repelling. For me, its “brokenness” and raw primal quality is hugely appealing.

Most of us grow up with the learned assumption that for a thing to be beautiful, it should look symmetrical and have a smooth and sleek finish. Our eyes are uncomfortable with things that are asymmetrical or show signs of natural wear and tear. It is almost as if in striving for perfection, we have forgotten that we live in an imperfect world, one where things do not last forever. In this respect, the Dayak figure resonates very well with the Japanese wabi sabi aesthetic which celebrates the beauty of the impermanent, the imperfect and the modest. In short, I see a great deal of wabi sabi beauty in the Dayak sculpture, and for me, that is enough to consider it as art. This is apart from the rich symbolism and myths that the object represents for the Dayak people. But that is another story.

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