Date: early to mid-20th century
Geography: Philippines, Sulu Archipelago
Dimensions: H. 28 x W. 8 1/2 x D. 42 1/2 in. (71.1 x 21.6 x 108 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Charles and Harriet Edwards, 1990
Accession Number: 1990.338a, b
Lying between the southern Philippines and Borneo, the Sulu Archipelago has long been a crossroads of cultures and artistic traditions. Perhaps the finest sculptors in the region are the Bajau people. Although the Bajau are Muslims, their art often reflects the influence of earlier indigenous imagery and occasionally includes human or animal forms ordinarily prohibited under Islamic religious doctrine.
Like Western gravestones, Bajau grave markers are erected over the resting places of the dead. The markers consist of two components: the kubul, a low openwork fence that surrounds the grave, and the sunduk, an upright element at the center of the enclosure. The form of the sunduk reflects the gender of the deceased. Women's sunduk consist of intricately carved openwork planks. Men's sunduk are cylindrical and often have a separate base in the form of a ship or stylized animal. Most examples are decorated solely with geometric and floral motifs derived from local Islamic traditions. In rare instances, however, men's sunduk are carved as human figures that exhibit close stylistic affinities with those of other indigenous Island Southeast Asia artistic traditions. This exceptional man's sunduk takes the form of a male figure set within a stylized ship which possibly represents a supernatural vehicle, conveying the individual to the afterlife.