Art styles are continuous across modern political boundaries on Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia’s Kalimantan provinces, Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah, and the Sultanate of Brunei. Numerous ethnic groups collectively called Dayak live in the island’s heavily forested interior. The textiles of the Iban people, the beadwork of the Maloh, and the sculpture in wood and metal of the Modang, Kayan, and Kenyah exemplify the aesthetic diversity of this style area.
A prominent and widespread theme of Dayak art is a mythical animal that combines attributes of the dog and serpent or dragon in a single creature called aso. This animal signifies protection and status, and use of the image is traditionally restricted to the upper class. Although these mythical animals are clearly doglike—they sit upright, and long, upturned tails emphasize their vigilance—the graceful curves and sleek surface of their bodies are rather serpentine, and dragonlike spirals surround their open mouths.
The animals’ notched tails suggest that the objects functioned as supports for another element, perhaps flat and horizontal. The dogs, two of an original group of four sculptures, would have faced outward at the corners, their tails supporting the horizontal member with pegs or dowels. Although tables are not associated with longhouse culture (meals were traditionally served on rattan mats on the floor), low tablelike forms might have been used to display treasured heirlooms such as Asian ceramic jars, metal gongs, swords, and kettles.