The Durian Head Party
Gawai Ba'ak. Head Party by Tiyan Baker (2022) is an art installation commissioned by Sydney College of the Arts Gallery that represents Bidayuh headhunting ceremony. "A head party was a ceremony for when enemy heads were taken back to the longhouse. Contrary to Western notions of Dayak savagery, this was as much a celebration of conquest of an enemy as it was an invitation to forge a new friendship. It involved feeding, washing, caring for the new heads and doing everything you could to make sure they were happy in their new home."
When Tiyan decided to use durians to represent the heads, her juxtaposition of the thorny fruit and decapitated heads became (for me) an incredible voice of taboo and misconception of Western perception towards Indigenous culture and this fruit.
Every now and again in The Thorny Fruit Co, I love talking about the cultural depths of the durian beyond the commercial sale of this fruit. And Tiyan has helped open my eyes to a side of the fruit I barely knew, even as a born and bred Malaysian.
I met Tiyan late 2020, when she messaged me to ask for discarded durian husks for her art installation. It was with her piece Juruh (2020), that taught me about her mother's Serian Bidayuh tribe and their deep relationship with durian.
The Bidayuh are a hillside tribe of the northern Sarawak region, whose nomadic roots can be traced by the location of centuries old durian trees throughout the Borneo jungle. The trees are respected as ancestral grounds. The fruit itself is respected and returned to earth. No seed or husk are simply thrown away. It must be returned to earth to be regrown - to bring continuity of life, wealth and nourishment back to the community.
Such was the tone of Tiyan's latest piece, Gawai Ba'ak, where she had created a stark collection of in-your-face decapitated heads using Australian-grown durians.
I thought about how appropriate it was, in particular knowing Tiyan's own heritage. Tiyan is an anglo-Australian born in Darwin NT to a Bidayuh mother. Tiyan had selected Darwin-grown durians from the December 2021 season, and earnestly preserved them over 5 months to be transformed into Bidayuh "heads" for this artwork. These were the two pieces of her culture she melded unto itself. It also displayed (to me) a vulnerable battle of her personal heritage and identity through her artistic expression.
What also intrigued me, was that I had always misunderstood head hunting as a ritual of savagery, as told to me in the Malaysian history textbooks in a whitewashed manner. Instead, Tiyan's artwork conveyed the opposite. The Bidayuh tribes who were custodians of heads, had celebrations of community, friendship and warmth whenever hunted heads were brought back to their longhouses. In fact, guests to the tribe's longhouse were warmly welcomed to sleep underneath openly displayed hunted heads. This was a gesture of friendship and hospitality.
Similarly to durians where they're known as fruits for communal festivities and shared in acts of friendship. Whenever Malaysians had guests alien to our culture, and it happened to be durian season, we would warmly welcome them to share our durian fruit.
There is so much to love and know in order to respect the durian fruit. Especially when tales of ancestral honour originates from Borneo, a sacred land which I view as the Eden of tropical fruits.
I was honoured to be invited to provide catering for a special in-conversation talk at the SCA Gallery on the last day of the exhibition. I witnessed Tiyan share her experience and discuss the cultural aspects of her installation with Bidayuh scholar, Dr June Rubis. So I knew I had to honour this talk with durian, mangosteen and jackfruit to represent the fellowship of the day.
I had commissioned John Ralley for Textbook's famous Durian Croissants, the popular Honey Jackfruit danish from our high tea last year, and a new creation - a Mangosteen Vanilla Tart.
It was a blessing to have two personal friends, whom serendipitously were brought together on stage, to help me learn more about a facet of my Malaysian heritage and durian.
More of Tiyan Baker's work can be found at tiyanbaker.com.