| Shield [kelebit]

Kenyah or Kayan people
east Kalimantan, Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia

Shield [kelebit] 19th century
wood, pigments
137.0 (h) x 42.5 (w) x 8.5 (d) cm
KIT Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam


The Kenyah and Kayan peoples of Borneo produce spectacular painted shields. Their graphic interlocking spiral, circle and hook designs form ferocious faces and figures with huge eyes and fangs. Menacing aso dog-dragons are intertwined within the spirit figures and faces. Such shields were used both physically and spiritually to protect warriors during warfare and headhunting raids.

The practice of killing members of rival communities to secure trophy heads was an important rite of passage for young men and essential to ensure the agricultural prosperity of longhouse communities. To illustrate a warrior’s prowess, tufts of hair taken from human victims were often inserted into perforations in a shield’s surface. While headhunting is no longer practised, decorated shields continue to be used for ritual performances.

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