Hat Panel

Artist: Unknown

Culture/People: Orang Ulu (attrib.)/Dayak

Place: Borneo, Southeast Asia, Indonesia

Media: Glass trade beads

Dims: 23.5 diam. in. (56.6 diam. cm).

Date: Early 20th c.

Description: This beaded sun hat panel is intricately decorated with European trade beads set on pineapple leaf fiber. The design consists of intertwined Also or dog/dragon motif possibly symbolizing protection or ancestral guardianship. As with baby carriers from Borneo, these beaded circular panels also are believed to have protective elements and differentiate one’s social rank. — Ralph T. Coe, c. 2000.

Dayak” is a broad term formerly used to describe all of the Indigenous peoples of Borneo representing hundreds of distinct ethnolinguistic groups. It is still used often in reference to the Indigenous arts of the island, even as it washes over cultural distinctions across different groups. While there are common forms and practices across these communities that are widely recognized by outsiders (tattooing, baby carriers, carved wooden figures, ornate beadwork) much of the nuance is lost to the use of such blanket cultural labels.

The mounting and display of this piece of beadwork from Borneo perform a strange act of dissociation from its actual function. Having this work mounted flat on a black ground and hung on the wall leads the viewer to think of this object as purely decorative; a panel of imagery closer to painting than what it truly is. This intricately designed piece is in fact a beaded sun hat panel. It is hard to visualize, without reference, how this beadwork functions in three dimensions, but it is worth putting in the effort to imagine it atop a beautiful and incredibly useful broad sun hat. However, if you need a little help imagining it, this gallery listing shows a full sun hat with its beaded panel still in place.

Indigenous beadwork in Borneo is an ancient art form, with seed beads found in archaeological sites from centuries ago. It used to be a highly stratified art form, with imagery restricted to various levels of social class. Full human figures and certain animals such as leopards or hornbills were reserved for the elite and aristocracy, with imagery working its way down through lesser animals, human faces only, and purely geometric patterns. The main image on this hat panel is a dog/dragon form, which would have been imagery for the middle class. The panel would have been loom-beaded beginning with the small central ring, with additional strings added on as the diameter grew. The imagery is protective, serving to buffer the wearer from physical and/or spiritual threats. The wearing of the imagery outside of one’s status could bring on significant risk. Today, that stratification has shifted significantly as social boundaries have changed and religious and cultural practices have come to include Christianity and Islam. Even as life has changed, the imagery and technique itself persist.

RTC No: AS0083
Gift of Ralph T. Coe

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