Round and Round: Spiral Patterns in Tribal Art

The spiral form in art is ancient. While this pattern is nearly universal, few places have embraced and innovated it with such flourish as Indonesia, the world’s largest island country. From Sumatra in the west to the main island of Java to the remote Maluku islands, spirals – singly or in hooked and intersecting forms – have adorned indigenous textiles, jewelry and sculptures for millennia. Spiral designs continued to inform artistic creation in Indonesia as late as the last century, but modernization is fast exerting its numbing effect on a generation who has little memory of and taste for this beautiful and symbolic cultural icon. Fortunately, some of the finest objects featuring spiral designs have been preserved in museums and private collections, a small selection of which can be seen below.

Spearhead, Dong Son culture, north Vietnam, 3rd-2nd century BCE. Bronze. 18.5 x 8.4 cm. Musee Barbier Mueller, Geneva.

Notice the lovely spiral form of the eyes which taper to the nose bridge. When viewed inverted, this pattern has exact parallel to the famous Batak earrings known as padung padung (fourth picture).

Dong Son faces on the sides of a “moko” bronze drum found in Maluku, Indonesia.

Such drums were once made in large numbers on Alor  and traded to other parts of Indonesia. Private collection.

Box. Toba Batak, Sumatra, Indonesia. Wood. 19th century. Length: 12 cm. The Wallace Collection, Singapore.

All sides of this box are incised with swirling patterns similar to those found in Batak house carvings while a classic Dong Son heart-shaped face graces one side of the box.

Top: Woman’s silver ear and cloth ornament (padung padung), Karo Batak people, Sumatra, Indonesia. 19th century. 16 x 15 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Bottom left: Ceremonial gold earring (fondruru ana’a), Nias people, Nias, Indonesia. 3.8 x 4.8 cm. Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore. Bottom right: Spiral-shaped gold ornaments, Dian culture, Yunnan, China. 206 BCE – 8 CE. 3.1 x 6 cm each. Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming.

Spiral-shaped pendant (ani ani), Sasak people, Lombok, Indonesia. 19th – early 20th century. 6.5 cm wide. The Wallace Collection, Singapore.

Hanging shroud (pori situtu), Rongkong people, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Late 19th century. Cotton, natural dyes, warp ikat. 159 x 260 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Used for funeral rites, these textiles display schematic spirals and hooks, which has been interpreted by some art scholars as abstract representations of ancestors.

Woman’s skirt (bidang), Iban Dayak, Sarawak, Malaysia. early 20th century. The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.

Iban motifs are traditionally handed down from mother to daughter. Most depict human, animal and foliage forms. The main motif in this bidang is the rusa (deer). Spirals and hooks recalling Dong Son patterns fill the entire central portion of this textile.

House door. Atoni or Dawan people, west Timor. Wood. 142 x 65 cm. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.

The once vibrant carving traditions of Timor in the eastern part of Indonesia have faded. This impressive door is a testimony to the remarkable skill and “soul” of artists of the past. Made by the Atoni people in west Timor, the central portion of the door has four columns of double-spirals stacked symmetrically to pleasing effect. Other ornamentations include breasts (symbol of fertility) and a saddle-shaped headband of the type worn by warriors.

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