Andre John Philip Sydnor

Gretchen Bender

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HAA 1050: World Art:
Contact and Conflict

11 December 2017


         The artistic work I have selected is a hampatong figure in
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, originating from Borneo in South Asia.  I initially came
across artworks originating from Borneo in Ancient Echos: The Mark Gordon
Collection of Southeast Asian Indigenous Art by Mark Gordon.  The art in the Borneo section of the book
consisted of a wide variety of masks, dolls, and sculptures.  I was immediately struck by the sense of
monumentality, commemoration, and regal bearing of this particular hampatong
figure.  Without knowing much about the
history, culture, or art of this region I was intrigued by this object because
I knew that something of its size and facture must have some cultural or
religious significance.  Hampatong
figures are wood carvings done by indigenous people – Dayak – in Borneo.  The Ngaju and Ot Danum people carve hampatong
figures to personify ancestors and to protect the community from evils, among
other reasons.[1]  The work I have
selected is estimated to have been created in the 19th century by the Ngaju or
Ot Danum peoples; it is made of wood and stands at 71 inches tall, 12 inches
wide, and 10.5 inches deep. [2]
 It is currently on display at The
Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This work is
within the scope of the project because I am unfamiliar with South Asian
indigenous culture, and it is within the scope of the course because indigenous
people are at odds with imperialists and settler colonialists, creating a
contact zone.  The purpose of this
project is to visually analyze and contextualize this work using Clifford
Geertz’s thick description as a theoretical framework.  It is important to recognize that although at
times I use an authoritative tone, that I use such a strong modality because it
enhances clarity for the reader; this is the first time I am learning about
this type of art, so the knowledge I have is strictly limited to the sources I
used.  This is a hampatong figure with
deep, rich cultural background that is an essential attribute of the object,
and in trying to describe this object, if I were to use a weaker modality, it
would become less clear what is going on with the object.



         Five hundred kilometers off the northwest coast of Indonesia,
lies the World’s third largest island, Borneo. 
It is a mountainous country with richly biodiverse plant and animal life
and lush forests.[3]  It is controlled by three nation states:
Indonesia occupying the largest area, followed by Malaysia, and Brunei with the
least territory.[4]
 Dayak is a general term used to describe
the indigenous people originating from Borneo; the word originates from ‘daya’
which means “upriver” or “toward the interior”.[5]  Indigenous people in Borneo inhabit all areas
of the island, coastal and inland.  The
dichotomy of Dayak and Malay exists as an oversimplified method to separate
vastly diverse groups of people into two mutually-exclusive categories: Muslim
and non-Muslim indigenous groups.  In a
region of the world where it is not possible to map all the groups or languages
spoken by the groups, it could be perceived as erasure to classify these people
into two groups because of the sheer size of the groups.  While similarities exist between the groups
within Dayak and Malay, they are separate and distinct; the issue of broad
generalizations becomes much more prevalent when using such broad

         Hampatong refers generally to the carved wood sculptures
representative of humans, gods, or animals created by the Dayak.  The Ngaju tribe is the most populous group of
the Dayak with 890,000 people.[6]  While Ngaju is the group pinned with the
creation of the hampatong figure explored in this paper, identifying who made
this and where it comes from is much more complex than it seems.  Although experts say with some degree of
certainty that the piece originates from the Ngaju people, the muselogical
isolation of this object removed it from its original location, essential to determining
its original function.

Controversy in Classification

categories of hampatong figures exist, but this paper only focuses on three
types: tajahan, pataho, and sapandu.  In
this section I juxtapose the way in which two scholars, Eric Kjellgren and
Paulo Majullari, categorize hampatong figures. 
Eric Kjellgren BIO.  The hampatong
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is usually considered to be a hampatong
tajahan, used in this context to mean commemorating the dead.[7]  However, I would argue that this object should
not be classified as a hampatong tajahan, but rather a sapandu.  Eric Kjellgren along with other, usually more
contemporary art historians, categorize all large hampatong figures into two
types: (1) tajahan: commemorating the dead and (2) pataho: guardian figures
erected to protect the community.[8]  This dichotomy used to categorize large
hampatong figures excludes the history, culture, tradition and ritual behind
hampatong figures; it is ahistorical and the definitions themselves are
incorrect.  According to Majullari,
hampatong tajahan act as the courthouse of the community.  Inside the figure, a rock holds the
territorial spirit and represents the executive power.  It is at the discretion of the village chief
when this form of justice is to be used: usually when it could be deemed
impossible to settle a dispute among community members.  Evil spirits are constantly present in the
place where the hampatong tajahan stands. 
With this context of the history and ritual behind the hampatong
tajahan, it becomes more clear that this likely does not accurately describe
the hampatong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Although, it becomes incredibly difficult to
definitively identify the exact type of hampatong figure without knowing the
context of where the figure was originally located within the community.  Sapandu is a type of hampatong figure that is
always present in a traditional Dayak death ceremony called the tiwah; animals
are tied to this type of post and sacrificed.[9]  The tiwah is an extended burial feast
representative of liberation to paradise, deeply rooted in the kaharingan[10]
religion where animals or slaves are sacrificed with the intention of their soul
accompanying the soul of the departed to the afterworld.  This ritual is expensive in the money, time,
and resources it requires, but it is absolutely essential within the religion;
the number of sacrifices and the size and type of hampatong are dependent on
the importance within the community of the deceased person and the family’s
financial means.[11]  The sapandu can come in three shapes: (1) a
post with a small image on the top representing one or more deceased people,
(2) for people of noble ancestry, and (3) direct representation of the dead.[12]  The figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
could be a commemorative figure of a noble person which is lies at the
intersection of 2 and 3.  These shapes
are by no means mutually exclusive and can have a large degree of overlap.  What leads me to believe this is not only the
size of it, seventy-one inches tall, twelve inches
wide, and ten and one half inches diameter[13],
but also the diadem – or crown on its head. 

Additionally, the condition the wood is very good.  There is a prominent split directly down the
center of the body of the figure, however the rest of the wood is intact.  Some splitting and cracks exist in the wood
towards the base of the object, but nothing major.  The wood used for a hampatong figure is
special and distinct from regular wood.  Before
collecting the wood for a hampatong figure, everyone participating was required
7 days of abstinence.[14]

A Distinct Object

figures in general are unique with a deep, rich culture and history, but this
specific hampatong is distinct from others. 
The figure depicts what we can reasonable construe is a man, sitting on
top of a stool or chair with his hands on his knees.  The fact that the man is shown sitting on a
chair or stool is unusual for hampatong figures originating from this
region.  Since a great deal of the art
originating from Borneo was created prior to manifestations of modernity[15],
it was more common for figures to be depicted seated on the ground with their
knees tucked into their chest and arms wrapped around the knees.  In fact, it is unusual to see a hampatong
figure that is in the seated position sitting on anything other than the
ground.  Of the other hampatong figures
shown in the books and catalogues I used, this was the only hampatong figure
which did not depict a person seated on the ground.  It separates this particular figure from
other figures of its kind.  The fact that
the man in this work is depicted seated on a stool or chair is one indication
that the figure depicts someone of nobility. 

the figure is sitting on a stool on top of a ceramic trade jar – a tempayan –
originating from China.  The jars were
very precious to the people of Borneo and were often attributed magical
qualities, especially in the middle of the island; they demarcated wealth and
status and were often passed down as treasures to family.  The jars originate from South China, Vietnam,
and Thailand and were traded by the East Asians with the Dayak for forest
products; they are used to hold drinking water and to prepare arak – fermented
rice beer – which is one of the major gifts given on the fifth day of the tiwah;
they were also frequently used as burial vessels for important people.[16]  Since burial is seen as the most important
rite by much of Borneo’s indigenous groups, the fact that they used these jars
for it demonstrates their importance in society.  The jars stood as a symbol for metamorphosis,
renewed and recycled life, and a process of transformation; not only in the
context of their use in burial rites, but also the arak made in them.  The arak undergoes transformation while in
the jar – it ferments.  The most valuable
of tempayan were equivalent in value to a slave; if someone broke or stole a
jar, he or she either had to replace it or become the slave of the owner.[17]  When used in art, tempayan can differentiate
a high ranking person in the community from an enemy figure.[18]  Especially when jars are decorated with dragons,
they symbolize high status.  “Dragon
jars” are the most prestigious and symbolize fertility.[19]  The trading of tempayan in Borneo is an
example of contact which did not result in conflict and was mutually

adornment on top of the figure’s head could be indicative of the sex and status
of the person being represented.[20]  The object that crowns the figure’s head is
called a diadem; it represents jewelry. 
It is something that demarcated high nobility from the general
population.  It could also be something
that was passed down to the family.[21]

mood this figure creates is one that is calm and peaceful.  “This figure’s tranquil naturalism
distinguishes it from other types of hampatong, which are often characterized
by such exaggerated features as bulging eyes or aggressively protruding
tongues.”[22]  This statement reflects on the features of
this particular hampatong in relativity to other similar types of hampatong.  While there is an atmosphere of tranquility,
the figure exerts a sense of authority and respectability. 


object becomes difficult to interpret due to its museological isolation.  This isolation severed the figure from its
original context which gives insight into its functionality and utility.  In the Controversy in Classification section I
get into some of the different types of hampatong figures, and it becomes
evident just how important the original setting of the hampatong is in
determining its original intent and function was.  For example, hampatong pataho and hampatong
tajahan have very different functions and locations in the community, but the
actual hampatong figure could look similar. 
If the hampatong were isolated from its surroundings, it would be very
difficult to determine the type of hampatong figure it is.  It is not necessarily important the type, per
se, but more so the function it served and its purpose. 

[1] Maiullari, Paulo. “Hampatongs in
the Daily Life of the Ngaju Dayaks.”. Borneo Research Bulletin 35
(2004): 102-120

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Yale University Press, 2007.


Wentholt, Arnold. “Coaxing the Spirits: Amulets, Charms, and Measuring
Sticks.” In Dayak Amulets:
Miniature Sculptures from Borneo, edited by Bruce Frank Primitve Art,

[4] Maiullari 2004

[5] Soriente, Antonia. “Studying
Linguistic and Cultural Contact in Borneo: Prospects and Challenges.” Anthropologia 1, no. 1 (2014): 59-81.

Art, Dallas Museum of. Eyes of the Ancestors : The Arts of Island Southeast
Asia.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

[7] Kjellgren, 2007

[8] Kjellgren, 2007

[9] Maiullari, 2004

[10] this word is uncapitalized in the

[11] Maiullari, 2004

[12] The preceding background context was
provided by Maiullari, 2004

[13] Kjellgren, 2007

[14] Islands and Ancestors: Indigenous
Styles of Southeast Asia. 1988.

[15] Soriente, 2014

[16] The contextual information about the jar
is provided by Islands and Ancestors: Indigenous Styles of Southeast Asia.

[17] Ströber,
Eva. “The Collection of Chinese and Southeast Asian Jars (Martaban,
Martavanen) at the Princessehof Museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.”

[18] Kjellgren, 2014

[19] Ströber

[20] Islands and Ancestors: Indigenous
Styles of Southeast Asia. 1988.

[21] Kjellgren, 2014

[22] Kjellgren, 2014


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