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Jurookng: Sltamanic Amulets from Southeast Borneo.

Raymond Corbey, 2018, Jurookng: Sltamanic Amulets from Southeast Borneo. Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology, Ethnographic Art Books/C. Zwartenkot, pp. 243, including 64 Amulets--A Catalogue. ISBN 978-90-5450-019-3.

This is the latest publication in the Ethnographic Art Books series. There have been previous volumes on Borneo including Iban art: Sexual selection and severed heads. Weaving, sculpture, tattooing, and other art forms of the Iban of Borneo (2005) by Michael Heppell, Limbang anak Melaka and Enyan anak Usen; Langs de rivieren van Midden-Kalimantan. Cultureel erfgoed van de Ngaju en Ot Danum Dayak/Along the rivers of Central Kalimantan. Cultural heritage of the Ngaju and Ot Danum Dayak (2012) by Arnoud Klokke and Marko Mahin; and Of jars and gongs: Two keys to Ot Danum Dayak cosmology (2016) also by Raymond Corbey. These are beautifully presented and illustrated books and, though they are styled "art books," the narratives are written by well-informed social scientists. This is the fourth book in the Art Book series for which Raymond Corbey has written the text, which, in this volume, accompanies a catalogue of 64 amulets. A relatively detailed introduction, "Along the Mahakam River," discusses ethnic identities and classifications; the characteristics and styles of the amulets; their meanings, the religious contexts in which they were used, the categories of spirits invoked; shamanic journeys and healing ceremonies, and the effects of external influences (Islamic and Christian) on Dayak culture and its material expressions. The book's focus is on ethnographic materials on the Benuaq, Tunjung and Bentian communities of the middle-Mahakam. These groups are part of the wider Luangan cluster, and of the even wider, Barito-speaking populations of the southeastern region of Borneo which include the Ma'anyan, Ngaju and Ot Danum. Corbey refers to the populations under study as "this variegated conglomerate of ethnic groups" (p. 19), and states that the Ngaju and Ot Danum "utilized more or less similar amulets," and they "held comparable but less extensive healing ceremonies as well as comparable but more extensive secondary funerary rituals when compared with the Luangan peoples to the northeast" (p. 21).

These qualifications suggest that the interpretation of some of the amulets from this rather wide ethnolinguistic area might present some difficulties in relation to provenance, style and meaning. Those amulets positively identified as Benuaq-Tunjung in the catalogue, however, only amount to about one-fifth of the entries. Although roughly another one-third are of uncertain or unspecified provenance, some of these are probably part of the Luangan-Ngaju-Ot Danum cluster. Further complications arise because amulets are also included from a culturally different set of populations of southeastern Borneo which Corbey refers to as "Kayanic," which provide around half of the amulets presented in the catalogue.

"Kayanic" is, perhaps, a misleading term. It includes, for Corbey, a diverse cluster of ethnic groupings, which Rousseau (1990: 15-18): considered comprise four major "ethnic categories." The four groups are identified and discussed below.

(1) Busang, Bahau, and Mahakam-Kayan.

These groups locate their origins in the Upper Kayan River (Apau Kayan), from whence they migrated to other parts of Borneo. With the exception of most of the Mahakam area, where they are known as Busang (in the Upper Mahakam) and Bahau (in the middle-Mahakam), they are called "Kayan" (in the Upper Rejang and Baram regions of Sarawak, and the Mendalam River in the Upper Kapuas region of West Kalimantan). There is, however, one relatively small group in the Mahakam which has retained the name "Kayan" (which Rousseau refers to as Mahakam-Kayan).

(2) Kenyah.

The term, Kenyah, covers linguistically diverse groupings found in the Mahakam. the Kayan River ("the Kenyah now consider the Apau Kayan as their homeland"), the Berau and Kutai regions of Kalimantan, as well as in the Baluy and Baram river basins of Sarawak.

(3) Long Glat, Modang, Ga'ai and Segai

The Long Glat, Modang, Ga'ai and Segai, share a common language but are named differently in different parts of Borneo. They are known as Long Glat and Modang in the Mahakam area.

(4) Aoheng (Auheng) or Penihing

The Aoheng (Auheng) or Penihing reside in the Upper Mahakam region, although a few have migrated to the middle-Mahakam. Penihing is an exonym and Aoheng an endonym. Rousseau referred to them as "a concatenation of heterogeneous groups." Overall, therefore, the "Kayanic" cluster which Corbey proposed is as complex and diverse as is the "Luangan-Barito cluster," and this volume on amulets attempts to embrace this diversity, to make some sense of it, and to give cultural order to a particular kind of wooden sculpture to do mainly with healing and protection.

Raymond Corbey is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Anthropology in the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University. From 1990 to 2016 he worked in the School of Humanities at Tilburg University. His research has focused on human cognition, sociality and cultural behavior in an evolutionary perspective and, according to the information on the back inside cover of the book, he also has interests in "the history of dealings with non-western ritual art by, among others, art dealers, collectors, scholars, museums, and in particular, missionaries." His research interests and expertise are therefore germane to this project. For this volume on Dayak populations, primarily of the Mahakam River basin in Kalimantan, Corbey has covered assiduously a wide range of literature on indigenous Borneo cultures in English, Dutch, German, French and Italian, including doctoral theses; colonial materials housed at the Nationaal Archief in Den Haag; the archives of the Missionaries of the Holy Family at the Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, St Agatha; the relevant photographic archives at the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde and the University Library in Leiden, and those at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen; the Basel Mission and the J. (Jac) Hoogerbrugge Archive. Importantly Corbey indicates, that he consulted specialists in Borneo ethnography, including Martin Baier, Yohanes Bonoh, Pascal Couderc, Michael Heppell, Isabell Herrmans, Michael Hopes, Richard Payne, Jerome Rousseau, Anne Schiller, Bernard Sellato, Kenneth Sillander, Joseph Weinstock, Oliver Venz, Jacob Vredenbregt and Herwig Zahorka as well as garnering guidance and information from Benuaq and Tunjung ritual practitioners, (pembeliatns), and entering into exchanges with experts and dealers in Indonesian art. Corbey indicates that he uses the terms "ritual practitioner," "ritualist," "spirit priest" (in Dutch geestenpriester), and "shaman" interchangeably (p. 23). Among the Benuaq the term jurookng which gives the title to this volume and its catalogue was "applied in particular to figurative amulets strung onto a priest's necklace" (p. 41).

Corbey states that shamanic amulets from this region of Borneo have not been sufficiently studied, although Michael Hopes (who apparently provided substantial input into Corbey's project, including field interviews in January 2018) and the Tunjung ethnographer, Johannes Bonoh, had written on the subject. Corbey also draws specific attention to relevant material which can be found in three catalogues: Philip Goldman's The divine gifts: Dayak sculpture from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo): Exhibition at Gallery 43 (1975); Jacob Vredenbregt's Hampatong: The material culture of the Dayak of Kalimantan (1981); and Bruce Frank's D[alpha]y[alpha]k amulets: Miniature sculptures from Borneo (2016). Both Goldman and Vredenbregt, as Corbey explains, focused primarily on the Ngaju of south-central Kalimantan and referred appreciatively to Hans Scharer's Leiden-inspired structuralist interpretation of Ngaju cosmology and religious beliefs and practices, particularly in regard to deities, ancestral spirits and elaborate secondary funeral rituals. Both Goldman and Vredenbregt were also concerned with larger sculptures which served as memorials to the dead and, for village communities, as protective or guardian devices. Vredenbregt acquired most of the artifacts in his hampatong collection from traders in antiques in Jakarta in the 1970s. Frank, a New York dealer, describes, in his 2016 catalogue, 126 amulets, including 30 from the Goldman collection that were offered for sale in Paris in 2016. What is clear is that large numbers of artifacts from the southeastern region, and more widely in Borneo, have been inco[phi]orated into the extensive commercial activities of traders, collectors, and dealers in what has commonly been referred to in the West as "primitive art." Although I have not undertaken work on this region of southeastern Borneo, I had an early connection with some of the ethnographic material, and therefore Corbey's book, as with his Of jars and gongs, which I have also reviewed, hold a particular interest for me (King 2017: 34-38). Following my return from West Kalimantan in 1973, I worked closely with Jan B. Ave, Curator of the Indonesian and Southeast Asian collections at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (now Museum Volkenkunde Leiden), regularly visiting him in the early 1970s through to the mid-1980s. He was then much involved in the preparations for the exhibition Kalimantan, mythe en kunst (including working on the catalogue, Ave and Werff 1973) held at the Delft Indonesisch Ethnographisch Museum, "Nusantara" between February and December 1973. We spent some time together in Delft examining the collection, some items of which were acquired in the 1960s by Jac Hoogerbrugge (1924-2014) during regular visits to Samarinda when he worked as a transport agent for the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (Royal Shipping Company). Hoogerbrugge bought amulets from Mahakam Dayaks who travelled downriver and offered items for sale, from Roman Catholic missionaries in the Netherlands and from antique dealers in Jakarta. Some of the amulets in the Corbey catalogue, which were attributed to the Tunjung, were also loaned to the Delft museum for the Kalimantan exhibition in 1973. Sadly, the Museum "Nusantara" closed from January 2013 and its collections then distributed to other museums including the neighboring Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof as well as the Museum Volkenkunde.

During this period of my interest in material culture I also happened to receive a telephone call from Philip Goldman (1922-2012), the London-based dealer in "primitive art" whose Gallery 43 was located in George Street, London West 1. Goldman had started dealing in indigenous art from the late 1950s in New Guinea, where he had travelled the Sepik River buying artifacts. He also collected in Nigeria between 1963-66. His subsequent expedition to Kalimantan in 1970 resulted in an exhibition in 1975 and the publication of his catalogue, to which Corbey refers. Goldman had acquired a marvellous collection of hampatong from the Ngaju-Ot Danum region and at the opening of the exhibition at his Gallery in 1975 I chanced to meet up with Tom Harrisson-as it turned out this was the last opportunity to talk with him, given Harrisson's untimely death a year later. In return for assistance in putting together his catalogue when I used to visit him at Gallery 43 (which he opened in 1960), I was then later entertained at his gracious home and garden in Finchley, London, spending many hours talking with him about his collecting expeditions and his involvement in the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. (I remember well his generous donation of three hampatong to our ethnographic museum at the Centre for South-East Asian Studies at the University of Hull; they are still on display there.) A striking feature of Corbey's book and the ethnographic (or art) collections to which it refers is the extent to which Dayak sculpture has been appropriated by Western collectors, dealers, traders and ethnographers, and interpreted through a Western lens which searches for symbolic meaning in the attempt to explain items and elements of material culture. The issue of indigenous exegesis, and how this is incorporated into and understood by external observers, surface in this present volume. I am still a little unclear, for example, to what extent Jac Hoogerbrugge recorded and reported directly local explanations of the amulets and their meanings during his collecting expeditions. The same can be said of Philip Goldman in that, in my conversations with him, he was clearly searching through the literature and consulting anthropologists about "the meaning" of the sculptures he had bought, several of them acquired through intermediaries who collected on his behalf. The same issues of provenance and interpretation surface in Vredenbregt's and Frank's catalogues in that they bought items through intermediaries and did not have direct access to the artists who created the sculptures.

Corbey commences the volume by providing the Oxford Dictionary definition of amulet: "Anything worn about the person as a charm or preventive against evil, mischief, disease, witchcraft, etc; [s]ometimes also applied... to all medicines, whether internal or external, whose virtue or manner of operation is occult; [a] preservative, protection, or charm", (p. 2). The amulets featured in Corbey's volume (referred to as juro[o]kngs or jurongs among the Benuaq, Tunjung and Bentian) cover a wider ethnographic range than these populations of the middle reaches of the Mahakam River and include other linguistically-related Barito-speaking peoples to the south and the southwest as well as "Kayanic" communities to the north and northwest, who are culturally and linguistically different (terms also differ for these sculptures among some of the Ngaju-Ot Danum groups, and the "Kayanic" groups, with Corbey stating that the term jurookng is "applied rather loosely," p. 10). Corbey suggests that these "Kayanic" groups "have much in common" with Barito-speaking communities in regard to spirits, healing ceremonies and "figurative and non-figurative amulets" (p. 10), though artistic styles differ between "Kayanic" and Luangan amulets, which also in some cases "combine characteristics of both style areas" (p. 37).

Corbey states that the ritual contexts in which the amulets were used were "still rather fully observed" in the first half of the twentieth century, and that many of the sculptures which feature in the collection which he examines came from this period. He suggests that, in spite of external pressures from Christianity, Islam, and western medical care, various of the curing and other rituals continue to be practiced (p. 11). These carved wooden figures then had protective functions, embodying benevolent spirits, and were used to address or ward off misfortune. The inclusion, however, of "Kayanic" groups, and several photographs of them from the Dutch colonial period, tends to insert complications into the interpretations. For example, Corbey, in consulting a distinguished French anthropologist on small carved figures produced by "Kayanic" artists, provides an interesting personal communication from Bernard Sellato in the summer of 2017:
If some of these [figures] may be called 'amulets' they would be
individual, ad hoc productions, not part of standard rituals. Some may
possibly be involved in small domestic rituals, or may just be the
product of the odd artist's carving hobby (p. 41).

In addition, Kenneth Sillander, in another revealing personal communication to Corbey, draws attention to the use of amulets among the Luangan, Benuaq, Bentian and Tunjung, "as life and death ritual shamans' protective paraphernalia," but also that they are kept with "other potent objects" by "[o]rdinary people" and anointed "with blood during rituals in order to enhance their potency" (p. 44). Obviously in addition to the contextualization of Luangan ritual use of amulets it would have been very helpful to have had a more extended discussion of "Kayanic" culture in this regard.

Interestingly, Corbey raises a number of issues in relation to his description and interpretation of the amulets in a section entitled "Methodological Caveats," of which there are fourteen, though there is considerable overlap between some of them (pp. 81-84). Identifying the precise origins of pieces is a problem: similar styles and motifs occur across a wide area, while there was also "much variability both regionally and diachronically" (p. 37); iconographic meanings and the spirits or individuals represented might "vary with the local cultural setting," which change over time and, at any one time, have multiple meanings (a key issue is that most of the amulets "seem to represent spirits but at the same time make begging gestures associated with the individual addressing that spirit"); ritual practitioners and "elders" might have their own individual interpretations of the cosmos; those who carved amulets worked their own styles and expressed their own creativity, their freedom of expression, playfulness, humor and irony, and the events in which amulets were used were "primarily situationally performative ones"; artistic innovation and inspiration was also generated in dreams, and Corbey states that from information relating to certain amulets in the Delft collection "in the case of certain more grotesque figurines the Tunjung woodcarver had copied spirits encountered in his dreams" (p. 16); furthermore, "amulets may not have been generic but produced for specific situations and individuals" and only "familiar to those who were directly involved" in creating them (in other words there is a problem in addressing idiosyncrasy rather than "standard designs and iconographic features" and fixed meanings); the issue of secrecy in relation to the amulets and the need to ensure their spiritual efficacy rendered information incomplete, often vague, ambiguous and difficult to verify; and there is the problem of the diffusion or spread of cultural ideas and material expressions from one community to another in the context of contact, migration, intermarriage and trade. There are references in Corbey's narrative also to circumstances with which I was familiar in the Upper Kapuas region of West Kalimantan. Those practitioners skilled in curing and equipped with their ritual paraphernalia would be sought after by other communities and they travelled widely both within their own local cultural region and beyond (p. 44).

In his discussion of the problems of interpretation of the amulets there are several quotations which stand out for me: "Without talking to the person who owned a figure it is impossible to make any definitive statements on the identity of the spirit it represented, although more general observations are possible" and "... only the owner could tell you the meaning of a jurookng with any certainty, as they are products of associations and there is no prescriptive iconography at work" (these observations come from a personal communication of Michael Hopes in December 2017) (pp. 82-83, 84). Hilde May in the 1980s pertinently remarked, "The answers [to my questions] were quite different from individual to individual, and even when I was talking to one particular individual the answer could well be different the next day already." Finally, Corbey himself acknowledged the extreme difficulty experienced in providing a firm interpretation of amulets because of "[t]he lack of agreement between the.... pembeliatns... who provided feedback on the ethnic attribution of the 64 amulets.... as well as between several consulted ethnographers and art experts/dealers" (p. 83). These problem of identification and interpretation are compounded when many of the objects have been acquired by art dealers and collectors, and information about the time, context and process of collection are not available; and when the questions and contextualization provided by those responsible for acquiring the objects and the explanations of the artists involved in the creative process have also not been recorded.

Corbey makes statements in his captions which draw us into particular exegeses of the sculptures which are also complicated, in many instances, by the unknown interactions between local artists and external observers. He also adds that "the captions.... do not so much offer a definitive interpretation of individual amulets but rather suggest possible significance they may have had..." (p. 83). The captions provide "a frame of reference suggesting possibilities which can be considered plausible in view of various sources of information" (caption A31). Indeed, not all the objects are considered as jurookng and the term refers not to amulets but to "a kind of protector spirit" (p. 80). Keeping these caveats in mind several of the captions are hedged around with qualifications: "possibly," "probably," "presumably"; "perhaps," "may well have"; "may perhaps"; "resembles"; "slightly resembles"; "suggests"; "seems to suggest"; "seems to be"; "could refer to"; "as if to"; "apparently"; "sirih box (?)"; "agate beads (?)"; "egg (?)"; "child (?)"; "a couple (?)"; "guardian (?)"; "hermaphroditic (?)"; "a female (?)"; "a father (?)"; "adorned ears (?)." Captions which indicate the problems of interpretation clearly are A12: "Are the arms crossed as a means of self-protection? Or does this match the way the Benuaq position the arms of a corpse...? Are both explanations possible? And A13, "Could this be a headhunter's charm, expressing a wish for the safe acquisition of heads addressed at the spirit of this particular shaman? Or was it a midwife's charm, in view of the swollen genitalia, hinting at childbirth?"; And A16: "Could the complex constellation of figures portrayed in this amulet perhaps represent a well-known scene from a certain mythical narrative? Or, alternatively, does it concern a scene witnessed in a dream, as seems to have been the case with a number of other items in the present set?"; "Can amulets A10 and A61, which also feature two figures facing opposite directions, be seen as analogous, or are they completely different?" A26: "This spirit with protruding tongue touches its genitals with the right 'spirit' hand. Is she perhaps begging to fall pregnant?"; A58: Does this amulet portray a pregnant woman? Or is her swollen stomach perhaps the symptom of a disease?" A61: Could this convoluted woodcarving depict a specific scene from one of the countless myths handed down for generations on the banks of the Mahakam River? The same question rises as to a number of other, more complex amulets included in this set." A64: "Its protruding tongue touches and thus probably protects a child--his own or that of the amulet's owner? Could this suggest spiritual contact or a transfer of spiritual force by means of saliva, as can be witnessed in healing rituals?" Overall the book is lavishly produced with some arresting black-and-white images from Dutch colonial archives and publications. The 64 amulets in the catalogue are also beautifully photographed. Corbey provides us with much food for thought in the interpretations and contextualization of these amulets and has engaged the subject in some detail, but he generates, as he himself indicates, as many questions as answers. Finally, apposite observations capture some of our interpretative dilemmas; attached to amulet A35 Corbey proposes that "Indeed mythical discourse has its own logic, permitting several at first sight dissimilar meanings simultaneously"; and then does he admit defeat in his comment on amulet A47? "We will probably never know exactly which expressions of belief and culture have been embodied in this magnificent statuette."


Ave, Jan B. and J. van der Werff

1973 Kalimantan, mythe en kumst: Tentoonstelling in het Indonesisch Ethnografisch Museum. Delft: Indonesisch Ethnografisch Museum.

Corbey, Raymond

2016 Of jars and gongs: Two keys to Ot Danum Dayak cosmology. Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology, Ethnographic Art Books/C. Zwartenkot.

Frank, Bruce

2016 Dayak amulets: Miniature sculptures from Borneo. New York: Bruce Frank Primitive Art Gallery.

Goldman, Philip

1975 The divine gifts: Dayak sculpture from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo): Exhibition at Gallery 43. London: Gallery 43, exhibition catalogue.

Heppell, Michael, Limbang anak Melaka and Enyan anak Usen

2005 Iban art: Sexual selection and severed heads. Weaving, sculpture, tattooing, and other art forms of the Iban of Borneo. Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology, Ethnographic Art Books/C. Zwartenkot.

King, Victor T.

2017 Review of Raymond Corby Of jars and gongs: Two keys to Ot Danum Dayak cosmology, ASEASUK News, No. 61: 34-38.

Klokke, Arnoud and Marko Mahin

2012 Langs de Rivieren van Midden-Kalimantan. Cultured erfgoed van de Ngaju en Ot Danum Dayak/Along the rivers of Central Kalimantan. Cultural heritage of the Ngaju and Ot Danum Dayak. Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology, Ethnographic Art Books/C. Zwartenkot.

Rousseau, Jerome

1990 Central Borneo. Ethnic identity and social life in a stratified society. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vredenbregt, Jacob

1981 Hampatong: The material culture of the Dayak of Kalimantan. Kebudayaan material suku Dayak di Kalimantan. Jakarta: Gramedia.

(Victor T. King

Institute of Asian Studies

University Brunei Darussalam)
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Author:King, Victor T.
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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