Making Faces: The Expressiveness of Indonesian Tribal Art
This is the third and last of 3 instalments exploring the expressive art works of the tribal world. Today’s spotlight is on Indonesia, an archipelago of incredible diversity in nature and island cultures. As in other tribal societies, art plays a pervasive spiritual role in the more remote islands of Sumatra and the Lesser Sunda islands east of Bali. For centuries, these islands have been relatively isolated from western influences, and thus yield a rich store highly expressive art works designed to placate or chase away spirits or to offer protection to members of the community.
This unique axe blade was discovered on the island of Roti in the Lesser Sunda Islands of eastern Indonesia. Dated to between 1 to 500 AD, it shows a human figure with a disproportionately large head, big circular eyes and outstretch arms. The face on this axe blade has striking resemblance to the face motifs of Lapita pottery found in Santa Cruz islands in Melanesia dating to between 1500 and 700 BC (see below). It has been suggested that that the unique motifs that appear in ancient bronzes of the Lesser Sunda Islands can be traced to the Lapita culture through waves of seaborne migrations of Austronesian-speaking peoples from mainland Southeast Asia to settle in different islands in the vast Pacific Ocean, a migration that began more than 5,000 years ago.
The Bataks of Sumatra
The Dayaks of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo)
The Islands of Nias and Enganno, Western Indonesia
This ancestor figure is dressed in royal regalia of his high station. He holds a cup and stick in his hand, and is seated in a daro daro, an altar composed of two stylized dragons looking left and right. He has a warrior’s necklace, a schematic moustache and a single earring, all masculine references. This figure is carved by a refined hand, recognizable as the same hand as a companion piece collected by Paul Wirz before 1927, now in the Museum fur Kulturen in Basel and published in the Delft catalog, Nias Tribal Treasures, plate 102. Ancestor altars of this type adorned the interior of the community clan house.