Mahakam River region, east Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia
Sacred dragon and hornbill mask
wood, paint, cotton, brass, vegetable fibre
45.5 (h) x 35.5 (w) x 25.0 (d) cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
In the rice-planting ceremonies of the Bahau and other central Borneo communities, fantastic masks such as these are used to repel evil spirits. At festival time, masked performers entertain and frighten the assembled audience and act as mediums through which ancestral spirits may return among the living. Warmed by large quantities of local liquor, masked chanters retell the histories and genealogies of the clan and recount stories of rice spirits journeying to festivals to be reunited with the growing rice.
Masks can also be used by shamans to communicate with the spirit world, and some combine the features of sacred beings. The most powerful combination—of hornbill and dragon—can be seen in these two examples. Between ceremonies the sacred masks are stored in the lofts of communal houses.