Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Ceremonial effigy of a hornbill
wood, pigments, cotton
36.4 (h) x 95.6 (w) x 5.5 (d) cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The rhinoceros hornbill, native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and Borneo, is a popular and powerful motif, appearing often in the ancestral art of the region. In Iban belief, hornbills are associated with the upper world, and act as intermediaries between Singalong Burung, the principal deity and ancestor, and the human world.
During gawai burong or gawai kenyalang festivals honouring Singalong Burung and his messenger, hornbill carvings are paraded around communal longhouses. The ceremony was once a precursor to headhunting raids. With headhunting outlawed, the ceremony has been incorporated into rice harvest celebrations. Adorned with jewellery, clothes and offerings of food, kenyalang are placed on top of long poles where they symbolically remit messages to the upper world.