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.

Ancient – Axe blade with human motif, found on Roti, eastern Indonesia. Estimated date: first half of the first millennium AD. National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta.

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.

Face motifs from a Lapita pottery found in Santa Cruz islands, part of the Solomon islands chain in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Estimated date: 1500 – 700 BC.

The Bataks of Sumatra

Guardian figure, Batak people, Sumatra, Western Indonesia, wood, metal, hide and horsehair. 19th century.

Shaman’s staff, Karo Batak. Wood. 19th century.

The Dayaks of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo)

The various indigenous Dayak tribes of Kalimantan on the large island of Borneo. Apart from Kalimantan, the Dayak groups can also be found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Brunei.
figurative top of a memorial post, Bahau Dayaks, middle Mahakam River, Borneo. 19th century of earlier.

This snarling “monster” guardian figure that occupies one end of an ossuary looks as if it is about to leap out of the chest. Kayanic Dayak people, East Kalimantan. Hardwood. 18th century or earlier.

View of the ‘monster’ guardian figure from the side.

An ancient ancestral figure excavated from the Mahakam River in southeast Borneo. This riveting figure has an archaic heart-shape face, a facial rendering that has survived in Indonesia for millennia.

Coffin panel with a splayed spirit guardian figure, Kayanic Dayak, 80 cm.

A shield with traditional painted front showing tree and monster faces, Kayanic Dayak, Central Borneo, early 20th century.

Four Dayak masks from south, west, central, and east Kalimantan respectively. Collection of David Pusak, Singapore.

The Islands of Nias and Enganno, Western Indonesia

The stately elegance of a male ancestor figure known as Adu Sihara Salawa, representing a high-ranking clan member. 19th century.

Altar with ancestor figure, adu nuwu / adu zatua, Nias, Wood, 19th to early 20th Century
Ex collection: Prof. Dr. Herman Th. Verstappen, acquired by him in the south Nias village of Bawömataluo, May 1, 1955, 46 cm. Photo credit: Thomas Murray

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.

Detail of the Nias royal ancestor figure.
An expressive head ornament from tiny island of Enggano, 100 km southwest of Sumatra. The frog-like figure at the top is partly covered with tin foil with its eyes and teeth inlaid with mother of peal. Its facial appearance has striking resemblance to Polynesian (in particular, Maori and Marquesan art). 19th century or earlier.

The Lesser Sunda Islands

Source: Alarmy

Hairpin, Sumba island, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Wood. 19th or early 20th century. H: 24 cm. This elegant hairpin is topped by a male figure with hands out, palms up as if in a posture of supplication. Early 20th century.

Ancestor figure (Aitos), Timor, wood, 19th century.

Ceremonial mask, Belu people, East Timor, wood, 19th century. Dallas Museum of Art.
Shrine figure (Luli), Luang island, Maluku, wood, 19th century. Dallas Museum of Art.
The Luang shrine figure in full.

Ceremonial mask, Leti island, Maluku, wood, boar tusks, 19th century. Dallas Museum of Art.
Founding ancestor figure, Leti, Maluku, wood, 19th century. Rautenstrauch Joest Museum, Cologne, Germany.
Ancestor figure, Leti, Maluku, wood, 19th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Sulawesi (formerly Celebes)

Tau tau effigy, Toraja peoples, Sulawesi. Wood. 19th century. The Toraja carve tau-tau, smaller than life-size funerary figures, to commemorate high-ranking deceased. Only members of the highest-ranking aristocracy are permitted to have permanent tau-tau
Tau tau, Toraja people, Sulawesi, wood, 19th century.

Leave a Reply