An Eye for Beauty: The Art of the Mentawais

You may not have heard of the Mentawais. Few people have. The Mentawai islands are a group of islands situated off the western coast of Sumatra in the western part of Indonesia. An estimated 85,000 people are spread across the 6,000 square kilometers spanned by the islands. This translates to only 14 persons for every square kilometer, an indication of the islands’ remoteness. The indigenous people there live a semi-nomadic life as hunters and gatherers. Hunting and gathering is the oldest form of human foraging activity dating back to 2 million years ago in Africa. This gives you an idea of how “primitive” the Mentawains are.

Yet even a casual glance at the art of Mentawains will dispel the notion that primitive people are incapable of art, let alone the abstraction of “modern art” we are familiar with. Here are two examples to make my point.

The first object is a canoe paddle. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the simple elegance of this object, in particular, the heave shape of the paddle blade, the subtle ridge that runs along it and the two “fish fins” at the end.

Canoe paddle with crescent shaped pommel, staff carved in bamboo style, and elongated paddle with median raised ridge engraved with a hand and rounded point on top, wood, 19th century. L: 109 cm.
Two Mentawai women paddling a canoe. Photo taken in the early 20th century.

The second object is a dagger with handle carved in the shape of a rooster. I think the elegance of this piece speaks for itself.

Dagger with rooster, National Museum of World Culture, Netherlands

You may wonder why people living in a harsh environment would pay so much attention to beauty in their art. According to anthropologists who have studied the Mentawai way of life, the people of Mentawai believe that everything in the universe has a soul. This includes not only the rocks and hills, rivers, forests and animals, but also human creations. In other words, in their world view, art is as “alive” as trees and animals are. By extension, every object must be made to look beautiful as this will honor the “soul” that resides in it. This holds even for utilitarian objects such as paddles and daggers and war shields. When the soul is pleased, life in the community thrives.

What a beautiful idea.

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