Fowler Museum at UCLA.
Unit 3. Lesson 18. page 174
Study of a hornbill mask from Borneo introduces students to the natural history of
the bird and to cultural practices related to it. Students’ study leads to visual and
performing arts activities and to their understanding of and respect for omens and
other beliefs that are centered on observations of the natural world. Students will
To the Iban peoples of Borneo, the hornbill is known as a bird of prophecy. At the
Gawai Kenyalang, greatest of all Iban festivals, many carved and painted hornbill
figures are raised on tall poles. Perched on high, the spirits of the hornbill are ready to
take messages from the human world to the upperworld, the world of spirits.
The Gawai Kenyalang is a major event requiring many months of preparation. The
festival may last many days and people throughout the area are invited to partake
of large quantities of food and drink. Preliminary rites begin at the flag-decorated
longhouse—dwelling place of community members—and involve prayers, chants,
offerings, dance, and the playing of drums and gongs to summon the spirits. Finally,
after hours of incantations, the carved and painted hornbills are brought outside. More
sacred speeches follow, offerings are placed in the birds’ beaks, and the sacred images
are attached to the poles, which are then raised into place.
In earlier times the Gawai Kenyalang celebrated victories of warfare. Today on Borneo,
third largest island in the world, it celebrates the rice harvest. It is the most important
festival in a year-long series of rites considered essential to the fundamental well-being
of the community and to the successful cultivation of rice. The grain is believed to have
a soul and must be treated respectfully.
The Iban value creativity and artistic skills, especially in the carving of wood by men
and the weaving of cloth by women. Before he is five years old a boy imitates his father,
grandfather, and other local men as he makes simple items to be played with; works
made later include more intricately decorated canoe paddles, armlets, and household
and weaving tools. Not until his early forties will a talented carver be commissioned to
carve a kenyalang such as the one displayed in the Intersections exhibition.
1. Hornbills, Quilled and Otherwise
There are more than fifty species of hornbills, mainly in Africa and southern Asia. Of
varying colors, dark and light, they are mainly recognized by their huge, downward
curving bill topped by a large horny growth called a casque, and their long tail.
The ivory-like casque of the Borneo species is larger than most others and prized
as material for personal prestige ornaments. The bird’s wingspan can measure up
to six feet. Its flight begins with a loud rocket- or jet-like sound made by its large
wings. Other sounds come from its great variety of birdcalls variously described as
trumpets, bellows, brays, toots, barks and grackles. (See San Diego Zoo’s website
The breeding behavior of the hornbill is noteworthy. The male and female search
together for a hole in a dead tree trunk. With the female inside, the two seal up the
cavity’s entrance, leaving a slit only large enough for the male to feed the entombed
female, and after about 39 days the chicks as well. The mother bird breaks out
of the nest after about a month following the hatching; the chicks remain about
another 80 days.
The rhinoceros hornbill plays a major role in the origin stories and ritual life of nearly
all groups on Borneo and at different levels it is important to nearly all. The birds
serve as inspiration for Iban art, particularly the Gawai Kenyalang. Their graceful
movements are emulated in dances, they symbolically play roles in young men’s
initiations, and they are used to foretell or prophesize the future. Their influence
is seen in death rituals that last about the same time as the nesting period of the
hornbill, after which the soul of the dead is considered set free from captivity.
The large carved birds at the Gawai Kenyalang festival, and on display in the
Harnessing Spirits portion of the exhibition are noteworthy for the many curved
embellishments of a basic bird form. After viewing the carved bird or its image here
(fig. 3.11), students may interpret its appearance in a paper sculpture project. Using
cut strips of paper and tagboard, they will first construct an outline version of the
hornbill by joining the paper lengths to form the shape, including the casque. Use
quilling techniques of rolling and creasing the paper strips to fill in and elaborate
the form, taking inspiration from what the carvers have done with wood. Several
sites on the Internet (keywords: paper, quilling instruction) illustrate the many
possibilities with this effective technique.
2. Omens and Augury
For the Iban, spirits manifest as animals, insects, and birds to communicate with
humans and to give them warnings and advice. Birds are particularly important
and the Iban closely watch their flight and ground movements and listen to their
calls. According to Scholar Jensen (1974), “When a bird utters a call and appears in
sight, this is meaningful. The interpretation, however, depends on the direction of
its flight. This may be either from right to left, called mimpin
(which also includes passing on the right), or from left to right….If the bird flies in the same direction as the Iban is himself progressing, this is a good sign. If it flies in the opposite direction, the Iban is more likely to consider it a bad omen. When the bird flies
both ways across the Iban’s track…it lacks confidence…and the prospects are not
encouraging” (1974, 132). Equally significant are the birdcalls—which bird is heard, when heard, when heard in relation to the person’s activities (i.e. heard when first leaving the longhouse,
while walking to [or from] the field, while hunting a prey, etc.)
Jensen writes, “Although general principles certainly apply, the birds may have
differing significance for different people at different times. Individual Iban are
permitted their own interpretation and the validity of this is borne out by the
subsequent failure or success of their undertakings” (1974, 131).
3. Rice and Art
Although earlier generations of Iban celebrated Gawai Kenyalang for wartime
victories, today the festival is held to celebrate the rice harvest. Most Iban groups
are engaged in rice cultivation, which continues to be a highly ritualized activity,
although modern methods and concerns threaten perpetuation of many of the
traditions. The festival is one of many rituals held throughout Asia to honor rice
deities and ensure successful growth of this all-important crop. As elsewhere in
Asia, art and ritual are often important components of the growing cycle. A wide
variety of art traditions, specific to each group, includes representations of the
rice deity; offerings to the rice goddess; painted and sculptural images of animals
important to the growing; implements for planting, harvesting, and protecting the
crops; decoration of the granaries that house the harvested crop, and pictorial
representations of the rice agricultural calendar. The power of art is evidenced in
all of these. Many are discussed in the Fowler Museum’s Curriculum Resource Unit,
The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, that accompanied the 2004 exhibition of that name, and there are appropriate classroom activities suggested.
Taken from: http://www.fowler.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/curriculum/Intersections_Lesson18.pdf
The largest sculptures of the Iban people of northwestern Borneo are stylized images representing the rhinoceros hornbill (kenyalang), a large forest bird whose beak is surmounted by a horn-like projection, typically depicted, as here, as a spiral form. In Iban cosmology, hornbills are associated with the upper world and formerly, with warfare and headhunting. They serve as intermediaries between the powerful deity Singalang Burong and the human world. Hornbill effigies are the centerpiece of the gawai kenyalang, a ceremony that, in former times, could only be sponsored by a prominent war leader or his descendants. They also are used in similar rites called gawai burong. At the climax of the ceremony, the hornbill figure, lavishly decorated for the occasion, is erected atop a tall pole inserted through a hole in its body, such as that which appears on the present work. Following the ceremony, the sacred hornbill image is preserved in the loft of the communal longhouse and brought out to receive offerings during future gawai kenyalang or gawai burong.