An Intimate Snapshot of the Enigmatic Dayak Culture


New Zealand photographer David Metcalf was successful in capturing the organic essence of Dayak culture in his striking collection of photos. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

The Dayak dancers from North Kalimantan’s Malinau district awed their audience with a dazzling display of sights and sounds. The group managed to recreate the ambiance of their homeland’s rain forest as they imitated the mating ritual of a pair of birds of paradise.

Titled “Darung Tingkar,” or “Tree of Life,” the riot of colors from the costumes of both male and female dancers was highlighted by their headdresses of bird feathers. The men eerily echoed the birds’ mating cries, giving the performance an organic feel and authenticity that contrasts with the more ritualized dances of Java and Bali.

In a following performance, the dancers recreated a hunt in the Kalimantan rainforest. Accompanied by the sounds of drums and whoops that aimed to mimic the sounds of jungle animals, a male dancer crouched with a blowpipe in hand, showing the careful moves and stealthy manners that make the Dayak renowned jungle trackers. The hunter then used his blowpipe to take down his target with pinpoint accuracy, astounding the audience.

“Many of the dancers, including myself, are essentially autodidactic, as we have to feel the moves and react to the music and chants. Its not an easy thing to acquire, no matter how long one might have danced,” says 25-year-old lead dancer Siti Habibah, a lifelong performer and teacher of Dayak dances.

The performers opened “Photographic Exhibition of David Metcalf: A Celebration of Indonesian Cultures,” which highlighted 35 photos of traditional Indonesian cultures taken by the New Zealander between 2012 to 2014. Held at Jakarta’s Tugu Kunstkring Paleis exhibition hall, the images captures glimpses of ancient Javanese, Balinese rituals and the vigorous, martial traditions of East and West Nusa Tenggara. Essentially, the exhibition reflects Metcalf’s intimate relationship with the Dayak people of Kalimantan, a connection that earned him the nickname Dayak Dave.


New Zealand photographer David Metcalf was successful in capturing the organic essence of Dayak culture in his striking collection of photos. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda

One photo called “Dayak Dancer” captured the performing art’s integral role in Dayak traditions. The image not only captured the vibrant spectacle of a dance at the annual Isen Mulang Festival in the city of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, it also revealed the freedom felt by the dancers as they moved. Metcalf also portrayed the Isen Mulang festival with a mass of feathers and hands in an image reminiscent of Mardi Gras.

Other images, such as “Connecting With the Spirits,” “Proud Dayak Man” and “Ngaju Dayak,” are less colorful but no less profound.

Metcalf photos are available for purchase for Rp 2 million to Rp 9 million ($170 to $770). The proceeds, along with sales of his coffee-table book “Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage: Cultural Journeys of Discovery,” will fund the production of documentary on the expedition of six Kenyah Dayak tribesmen from North Kalimantan to their ancestral lands in the Long Saan area. The a portion of the earnings will also be used to educate Dayak children.

New Zealand’s ambassador to Indonesia, David Taylor, hailed Metcalf’s efforts to capture and celebrate the vast archipelago’s hidden cultures.

“[Metcalf’s photos] highlight Indonesia’s tremendous tourist potential, particularly its cultural and natural diversity. This will bode well for Indonesia’s future, as tourists are always on the lookout for something new,” he says. “Kalimantan is no less the case, as its biodiversity give it plenty of ecotourist potential.

“Efforts to tackle deforestation in Kalimantan will also go a long way. They will not make changes overnight, but small, short term sacrifices we make to that end will have long term gains” he says.

“Conservation will empower indigenous [communities] and will go a long way in conserving their culture.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on August 18, 2014

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