Thu, 20 Nov 2003

Dayak motifs reveal sacred philosophies

Bambang Bider, Contributor, Pontianak

Hanging each on the right and left walls of the entrance to the check-in room of the domestic departure terminal at Soekarno- Hatta international airport is an engraving peculiar to the Dayak Kayaan-Kenyah.

Every passenger, despite their hurried movement, will surely catch sight of these predominantly yellow, cement-made engravings.

These large, beautifully designed engravings reflect the philosophy of harmony of the Dayak people in the universe and heed the real engraving philosophy of the Dayak. These artistic works are beautiful to the eyes of laymen, let alone to those with a good grasp of their profoundest philosophy.

As Bernard Sellato has written in his famous book titled Hornbill and Dragon, the Dayak people possess high-valued wealth of engravings. A design can be engraved on practically any object in an appropriately esthetic and philosophical manner.

In the days of yore, engraving was not the main job of the Dayak. They would be engaged in engraving work when they were free after harvest time and were preparing themselves for their traditional rites such as gawai (Dayak Iban), dange (Dayak Kayaan-Kenyah), nyareakng (Dayak Bakati') and naik dango (Dayak Kanayatn).

Those engaged in engraving are mostly men because the material to engrave is usually hard such as wood, leather iron or ceramics. Dayak woman usually apply their knowledge of engraving in weaving, for example weaving cloths and dresses, embroidery, putting beads together and body tattooing in a number of Dayak sub-ethnic groups.

An engraving piece has its own significance. Among the Dayak Iban, just like among the Dayak Kayaan-Kenyah, some engraving pieces symbolize a religious system while for the Dayak Bakati' or Kanayatn, their engraving skills are reflected in totems or their sculptures of human figures known as Pantak.

Dayak engravings reflect the esthetic diversity of each Dayak sub-ethnic group. Their engravings range from the simplest motifs to the most complicated of forms. All these engravings, however, share a common religious value for the Dayak people.

In general, Dayak engravings can be classified into two major groups: works with motifs of sacred significance closely related to a religious system and those with profane motifs usually used as household utensils, for example the motif of the eyes of a pigeon, the tip of bamboo shoots, breaking waves and so forth. Of course, some sacred motifs can also be found on some household utensils.

A noted artist from West Kalimantan, Yohanes Eugene Palaoensoeka, who is from Dayak Taman sub-ethnic group, said that in the past the Dayak people rarely produced engravings of extraordinary motifs.

The variety of the engraving motifs is largely dependent on the experience of the engraver. If his knowledge is limited only to the spiritual imagination of his community, his engravings will also reflect this knowledge.

Dayak engravers, like Paulus Bunde, for example, always explore the images and spiritualism of their past in their works. Bunde said that foreign tourists liked these exotic elements in their engravings. This exploration, he added, also means preservation of the images and spiritualism of the Dayak in general.

The Iban people in Serawak, Malaysia, have their own unique practice of adding a new tattoo when they acquire a new experience. If someone flies in an airplane for the first time, for example, he will have a tattoo of an airplane made on his body.

In Mendalam village in the rural area of Kapuas Hulu regency, a Catholic church has been built on the basis of Catholicism and the indigenous belief of the Dayak Kayaan. This shows a transformation in the pattern and meaning of Dayak engraving motifs.

In keeping with the development of circumstances, engravings of Dayak motifs have undergone a change in their functions and significance. In the past, these engravings were made for a particular traditional rite but now many Dayak who have just a little engraving skill produce Dayak engravings for a living.

Unfortunately, some Dayak engravers have gone too far and are engaged in the trading of sacred sculptures or lungun (the grave of a Dayak that stands on poles) along with antique dealers and thieves.

What happens today is that a particular motif is engraved without heeding the philosophical basis of an engraving. Take, for example, a particular motif on a T-shirt that thoughtlessly uses a sacred name or term.

Has it ever occurred to these people who make such motifs that they have desecrated their own indigenous faith, the faith of their own parents and grandparents?