Special Exhibition: A Spoonful of Art

This exhibition showcases spoons made by the traditional tribal societies of island Southeast Asia, focusing on the Indonesia archipelago and the Philippines.

We don’t think of spoons as objects of art but as you will see, the indigenous people of these societies don’t see it that way. For them, there is no distinction between the utilitarian and the artistic; for art is a tangible expression of the values that hold a society together and give it meaning.

Among the most important of these values is the veneration of ancestors through imagery, ceremonies and offerings. Ancestors loom large in the traditions of tribal peoples the world over. The societies whose art is featured in this exhibition share a common Austronesian ancestry; their distant ancestors were people who spoke the Austronesian language, who migrated by boat out of south China and Taiwan more than 4,000 years ago, settling in diverse islands that span the Pacific Ocean in the greatest seafaring journeys ever undertaken by mankind. It is a powerful story that have passed down the generations and recounted in stories, songs and art. In art, this epic event is memorialized by the boat motif, symbolized in the crescent shape of a boat hull.

Another symbolism appearing frequently in Austronesian art is the bird, a creature of the “upper world” of departed spirits, the realm of the ancestors. The polar opposite of the bird is the serpent or dragon, a creature of the “under world”, feared yet depended upon to ensure a smooth journey of the departed from the under world to the upper world. Between these realms is the world inhabited by humans. So, three “worlds” occupy the imaginations of Austronesian tribal societies and the images associated with them, especially the bird imagery, recurs in many art objects, including spoons

Finally, a word about authenticity. All the spoons in this exhibition are from my collection. They were made in the 19th or early 20th centuries by the indigenous people of Indonesia and the Philippines for their own use, not for sale to tourists as many recently made “tribal art” objects are. The featured spoons in this exhibition are therefore old and authentic, cultural objects, to put it more grandly, part of the “heritage of mankind.”

Spoons from the Philippines

Figural spoon, Ifugao people, Northern Luzon, Philippines. Wood with dark glossy patina, 19th century, L: 20 cm
Detail of the figural spoon

The Ifugao people of northern Luzon in the Philippines are masters in the art of carving ceremonial spoons that depict a single figure representing an ancestor or sometimes, an embracing couple. The handle of this spoon shows a male figure with a naturalistic expression. He wears an elaborate headdress, and is depicted in a standing posture, with both his hands resting on slightly bent knees. The spoon has acquired a dark, glossy patina from years of use.

Spoon with Embracing Couple, Ifugao people, Northern Luzon, Philippines. Wood. 19th century. L: 24 cm.
Front and back of the spoon with embracing couple.

This is a beautiful example of an Ifugao spoon showing an embracing couple. The spoon is carved with great attention to detail as indicated by the couple’s wistful expression. The bowl of the spoon is deep and pleasingly symmetrical. It also has a deep, lustrous patina acquired from years of use.

Spoons from the Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia

The Lesser Sunda Islands are part of a volcanic arc that stretches east of Bali all the way Maluku, the fabled “Spice Islands”. The chain of islands include Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Alor archipelago, Barat Daya Islands, and the Maluku islands of Kisar, Leti and Tanimbar. Most of the spoons in this exhibition are from the larger island of Timor, famed for its gorgeous spoons and ladles.

Ceremonial spoon, Atoni people, West Timor. 19th C. Buffalo horn. L: 26 cm.
Detail of the above spoon

The tribes of Timor are noted for their exquisite spoons carved from wood or more commonly, the horns of the buffalo. Since it is customary to eat with your hands in daily life, these spoons were for reserved for ceremonial occasions, when one offers food to the ancestors.

This spoon exemplifies the classic style of spoons made by the Atoni people of West Timor. It is carved in open work with repeated bird motifs running the length of the spoon, crowned by a stylized human figure, possibly representing an ancestor at the top. Timorese traditional holds that when you die, your soul becomes a bird, and for this reason, one must pay close attention to birds in flight for giving omens and telling the wishes of the ancestors.

Ceremonial spoon, Tetum or Belu people, Central Timor. Buffalo horn. 19th-early 20th century. L: 13 cm.

The Tetum or Belu people where this spoon originates, live in the west and central parts of Timor. The spoons of this region is typically shorter than those made by the Atoni people (previous example). This ceremonial spoon features a single bird in profile and is carved with a deep bowl.

Ceremonial spoon, Atoni people, West Timor, Buffalo horn. 19th C. H: 19 cm. W: 4.75 cm.
Detail of the above spoon

This gorgeous spoon is made by the hands of a master carver. Carved from buffalo horn, it depicts a stylized bird holding something in hits beak, possibly feeding a baby bird. Note the graceful twist at the midsection, most likely done by steaming and then drying the horn as a demonstration of the artist’s skill.

Ceremonial spoon, Atoni people, West Timor. Buffalo horn, Early 20th century. L: 23 cm.

This spoon is a masterpiece of refined Timor art. The intricate spoon features a profusion of bird motifs from tip to bottom. The tip of the handle is crowned by a frigate bird with its head turned to its back feeding its baby. Supporting it is a larger bird, represented by a large head and prominent eyes. In the middle of the handle are a pair of small birds, one on each side. At bottom of the handle, two bigger birds face each other, held by the raised hands of a stylized ancestor figure.

Side and front view of the above spoon.
Bird and ancestor motifs in the lower part of the handle.
Ceremonial ladle, Atoni people, West Timor. 19th C. Buffalo horn. L: 23 cm.

Details of above ladle.

This handle of a ceremonial ladle is decorated with incised patterns of bird and lizard motifs that bear some resemblance to Easter Island petroglyphs (see below). Flowing out of the central space is the head of a large bird which is joined to the tip of the handle that once held a cup made from gourd.  

Birdman petroglyph, Easter Island, 15th-19th century. Basalt. H: 47 cm. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
Spoon with male ancestor figure, Tetum people, Central Timor. Wood. early 20th century. L: 13.5 cm.
Detail of the above spoon.

Spoons with bird and human figures are uncommon, and those with only human figures are rare. This spoon is an example. The human figure, rendered in three-dimension, probably had a meaning comparable to that of the birds, signifying that the deceased had bid farewell to the community and was now part of the realm of the ancestors. A spoon carved in a similar style is documented in Jerome Feldman, Arc of the Ancestors, p. 86.

Figurative spoon, Kei (Kai) island, south-eastern Maluku. Early 20th C. Coconut shell. L: 12 cm
Detail of the above spoon.

Authentic, old tribal artifacts from the remote Maluku islands are rare. This spoon is probably from the Kai islands in southeastern Maluku. Made from the husk of a coconut, the spoon is rich with ancestral symbolism. The tip shows a stylized female ancestor figure. Both her arms are raised, forming the crescent-shaped silhouette of a boat. The female figure (rare in Indonesian tribal art) is explained by the fact that Maluku society is matrilineal and it is females rather than males who are venerated as the founder-mother figure head of the community. She is the source of fertility and protection, symbolized here by the foliage and cock motifs respectively on her hands and body. These motifs appear in many other art forms such as combs, shrine figures kept in sacred houses and the garbled roofs of traditional houses.

Reference: Nico de Jonge and Toos van Dijk, Forgotten Islands of Indonesia, Periplus, Singapore, 1995.

Spoon with double scroll motifs, Tanimbar Island, south Maluku. 19th century. Wood. L: 25 cm,
Details of the scroll motif on the Tanimbar spoon.

The handle of this rare spoon is incised with double spiral and scroll motifs similar to those that decorate the famous canoe prows of Tanimbar (below). In both cases, the patterns symbolize ocean waves, which thus connects to the boat symbolism associated with the Austronesian migration.

The scroll motif on canoe prow from Tanimbar island, eastern Indonesia.

Spoons from Sulawesi, Indonesia

Sulawesi is a large island east of Borneo. Shaped like a spider with long draping legs, it is home to a great diversity of distinctive peoples, languages and cultural traditions. The Toraja people of the central highlands is our main focus. Isolated in the highlands, the Torajas evaded Dutch control of Sulawesi until 1905. As a result, they were able to maintain and foster an archaic artistic tradition that included the preservation of megaliths. Theirs is an aristocratic society where wealth and prestige are measured by number of buffalos and in the great aristocratic houses known as tongkonan with their wide curving roofs. Buffalo imagery is everywhere in Toraja culture – in the carved wall panels that decorate tongkonans, in tomb doors of wood inserted into cavities high up on cliff faces and in utilitarian objects such as spoons.

Spoon with buffalo motif, Toraja people, Sulawesi. Wood, 19th century. L: 18 cm.
Detail of the above spoon

The buffalo image is depicted with realism in this spoon, and much more abstractly in the next spoon.

Spoon with stylized buffalo motif, Toraja people, Wood, 19th-20th century. L: 15 cm.

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