The Small May be Beautiful: Miniature Tribal Sculptures

Since my youth, I have been fascinated by the art of so-called “primitive” societies such as those in Africa, Oceania and especially Indonesia. My interest was piqued after I purchased my first object – a small stone-carved figure from the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). For the next three decades, I was determined to build a collection of tribal treasures, limited (unfortunately) by my modest budget. I scoured the world for well-carved objects from PNG and also from the gorgeously exotic outer islands of Indonesia, places like Timor, Flores, Sumba and remote islands like Atauro and Leti in the far-flung corners of the Moluccas (the legendary “spice islands” of yore). Looking back, some of my favorite pieces have been small objects mostly of around 15 cm (6 inch) in height or length. Many of these pieces are used by their makers for day-to-day usage, things like spoons and combs and hunting charms. Though utilitarian in purpose, there is unquestionably elements of art in these objects. Indeed, the finest ones stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Western sculptures in their aura and beauty. What I like most about these palm-sized tribal sculptures is that these objects have “soul”, emanating from a combination of factors: the materials used in their construction (derived from nature and often unpolished), their ritual or ceremonial associations, the prestige they bring to their owners who are usually high-ranking members of the clan, and last but not least, the patina the objects acquire from years of handling. Scroll down the picture gallery below for a curated exhibition of tribal miniatures from three regions in Indonesia: Sumatra in the west, Borneo in the center, and Atauro island in the east.


Art of the Batak Peoples (Sumatra)

Ancestor Figure, Toba Batak, Light wood, 19th century, H: 19 cm

The Batak people live in the large island of Sumatra in the westerly part of the Indonesian archipelago. This figure is emblematic of the look of Batak ancestor carvings. Though small, this figure has a larger-than-life presence. Conceived in a minimalist style, the form is cubic and rendered with a minimalist touch that imbues the figure with a sense of outward calm and inner strength.

Lime Squeezer, Toba Batak, Wood. 13 cm, 19th century.

This object is used by Batak priests for pressing lime for purification ceremonies. Carved in the image of an ancestor, this lime squeezer blurs the line that separates art from the utilitarian. The ancestor figure wears a faceted coiffure, indicating that this object was the property of an important person, most probably a priest. The entire figure from the face down is beautifully rendered. 

Lime Squeezer, Toba Batak, Wood, 13.5 cm, 19th century.

Another lime squeezer used in purification ceremonies. This piece is simply carved and depicts a seated male ancestor in meditative pose. Though it stands at only 13.5 cm, this sculpture resembles the form and presence of some of the larger figurative sculptures found in traditional Batak society such the following large stone figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A large stone effigy of a Batak ancestor, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Stopper for a Container, Toba Batak, Wood, H: 7 cm, 19th century.

Batak priests use porcelain containers to store magical substances and medicines. The stoppers for these containers are some of the finest works of Batak miniature art. This small stopper for example features a helmeted rider on a singa (a mythical lion). Note how the artist has cleverly utilized the natural curve of the wood to create a flowing ‘wave’ from the top of the headdress to the tail of the singa.

Gunpower Holder, Toba Batak, Buffalo horn, L: 15 cm, 19th century

With the arrival of firearms in the 18th century, Batak craftsmen began making bullet and gunpowder holders as objects of status and power. This exquisite gunpowder holder is made from buffalo horn and has a glossy patina from years of use.  The center portion is decorated with the mask-like face of a singa (mythical lion) with three horns, a central one shaped like an arrowhead, flanked by two other horns curving outwards The narrow end is surmounted by another singa in profile.  Gunpowder was loaded into the larger end and taken out through the smaller opening when needed. 

Box with Lizard and Scroll Motif, Wood, 11 cm (L) x 7 cm (W) x 6.8 cm (H), 19th or early 20th century.

This exquisitely carved box belonged to a high-ranking member of Batak society and could have been used to store betel nuts for chewing. The box is entirely covered with ancient scroll motifs that may represent waves. A lizard – symbol of fecundity in many Indonesian tribal cultures – is carved in high relief on the lid. Most interestingly, one side of the box shows a heart-shape face that recalls the faces found on ancient Dong Son bronze axe heads and drums. Dong Son was a late Bronze-age culture named after a village in northern Vietnam. They were a seafaring people who journeyed and traded throughout Southeast Asia around 2,000 years ago, greatly influencing the artistic motifs of the region in general, and Indonesia in particular.

Drawing of a Dong Son bronze bell showing the scroll motif, a recurrent design in early incised pottery throughout island S.E. Asia. Circa 150 B.C.. National History Museum, Malaysia. Note the heart-shaped faces in each of these objects.
Protection Figure, Karo Batak, Wood. H: 9 cm, 19th century

This small figure of a male ancestor is carved with great sensitivity. The entire figure, from the face to the hands resting on the chest, exudes composure. The beauty of the sculpture is further enhanced by the skilfully rendered arched back.

Ring with Rooster Motif, Toba Batak, Brass. H: 6.5 cm, 19th century or earlier.

The rooster is the most important sacrificial animal among the Bataks. This ring is surmounted by a rooster while the outer surface of the band is incised with images of the mythical lion (singa). Such rings were used by the datu (priest) in ritual ceremonies for healing sicknesses or to inquire from the spirits why misfortune has befallen the village.

Art of the Dayaks (Borneo)

Finial of a Pig Stick, Iban Dayaks, Hard Wood, 12 cm, 19th century.

Dayak is a composite term referring to different tribes that are indigenous to Borneo, the third largest island in the world. The Ibans are the oldest among these tribes, with a history that dates back to 50,000 years. Besides agriculture, hunting is a way of livelihood among the Ibans, who use “pig sticks” such as this to lure pigs to a trap. Shown here is the finial of an exceptionally well-carved pig stick that depicts a hunkered figure representing an ancestor. The figure is carved with a animated expression with both hands up “calling the pig”. A more simply carved example is pictured below.

Finial of Pig Stick, Modang Dayak, Wood. 13 cm, 19th century. The finial of this is carved in the form of a hunkered figure representing a male ancestor.
Front and back of a weaving Implement and Hair Pin, Kenyah Dayak, West Borneo, Buffalo Horn, L: 14 cm, 19th century.

This tool for weaving rattan also doubles as a hairpin. The present example is particularly fine, and features a full-body human figure, male on one side, and female on the other. The central portion of the tool is incised with a swirl of foliage motifs commonly found in Dayak art.

Dart Quiver, Kenyah Dayak, Borneo, Bamboo and Wood, 30 cm, 19th or early 20th century

Handle of a bamboo dart quiver carved in the shape of a mythical dragon known locally as “aso” with its head turned on its back and body curled to culminate in a hooked claw. In profile and posture, this dragon bears a striking resemblance to the archaic dragons found in early Chinese jade and bronze art.

Tattoo Ink Holder, Iban Dayak, Wood, L: 5 cm. 19th century

Tattooing is an integral part of Dayak culture. They are applied on both the body and garments to display status or enhance aesthetics. This small goblet is used to hold tattoo ink. It is carved in the shape of a man seated with his arms wrapped around the goblet.

Tattoo Stencil, Iban Dayak, Wood, L: 8 cm. 19th century.

This tattoo stencil shows the “aso”, a mythical dragon-dog, interlaced with a composite of floral motifs . It is carved from hardwood stained black.

Wooden Buckle, Iban Dayak, Wood, L: 10 cm, 19th century.

The Dayaks carve wooden buckles such as this to secure a man’s weapons or other personal items supported from the waist belt. Although utilitarian in purpose, they are often artfully carved in the form of animals, real or mythical. This buckle takes the shape of the ubiquitous “aso” , the mythical dragon-dog.

Bamboo Container, Iban Dayak, L: 26 cm. Early 20th century. Private collection.

This bamboo container is used for many purposes, including storing powdered lime for betel chewing, as a food container, and possibly as a document case. The surface is profusely engraved with elaborate scrollwork coloured red-brown using vegetable dye. The scrollwork bears an uncanny resemblance to the swirling patterns of ancient Chinese bronze artifacts such as weapon shafts as shown below.

Bronze Weapon Shaft, Late Eastern Zhou or Warring States Period, 300 BC to 100 AD.
Pair of Hornbill Ear Ornaments, Kenyah/Kayan Dayak People, Sarawak, Borneo, Hornbill Casque,
Early 20th century. Height: 4.3 cm.

This pair of honey-colored earrings is carved from two single pieces of hornbill casque or beak. Each earring takes the shape of a coil that is decorated on both sides with flaring patterns representing a stylized dragon or aso. Such ornaments are worn by men of prestige either singularly or in pairs. The hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is a large forest bird known for its enormous orange-red beak and casque and dark blue feathers. It has enormous symbolic significance for the Dayaks who consider it as a representation of the upper-world god.

Hook, Iban Dayak, Wood, 19th – early 20th century

Carved in the shape of a bird in profile, this hook is designed to secure a man’s weapon or other personal items onto his waist belt. This piece shows the Dayak’s skills for turning otherwise purely utilitarian objects into works of great beauty.

Smoking Pipe, Wood, L: 11 cm, Early 20th century.
Miniature Baby Carrier, Bahau Dayak, Wood, Shell, Brass Coins, Tusks, W: 26 cm; H: 22 cm, 19th-early 20th century

In Borneo, babies are transported in baby carriers that are carved from wood and often decorated with colorful beadwork. Carriers with human faces or figures are reserved for children of aristocrats. The present example is a miniature version of a true baby carrier and is used in birth ceremonies. Although it is just one-third the actual size, this miniature displays the same iconography of a full-sized baby carrier in all its glory.  The centerpiece depicts three heart-shaped faces with shell-inlaid eyes, three of which are missing. The heart-shaped face is ancient, traceable to a culture in Vietnam known as Dong Son, from which art motifs have travelled to many parts of Indonesia by way of trade.

Finial of a Bamboo Container, Ngaju Dayak, Central Borneo, Bamboo and Wood, H: 9 cm (full container: 43 cm), 19th century.

Bamboo containers like this are used by Dayak priests to store magical substances for rituals. The surface of a bamboo container is often embellished with elaborate scrolling patterns symbolizing foliage or swirling dragons. The stopper of this container depicts a mythical feline creature, whose rear is raised as if ready to pounce. Its large eyes, gaping mouth bearing sharp teeth add to the menacing appearance intended to scare away bad spirits.

Charm Figure, Dayak, Tunjung peoples, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Wood, 11 cm, 19th or early 20th century.

 This little figure has a monumental presence that belies its size. It is carved with great sensitivity, as would befit an important personage (most probably a village elder). Important markers of his status include the seated posture, the disproportionately large head, curled moustache, and a penetrating gaze.

Protective Figure, Dayak, Wood. 12.5 cm, 19th century.

This figure depicts an ancestor with his right hand resting on his chest. Such figures are believed to have curative and protective powers.

Male and Female Charm Figures, Iban Dayak, Wood, 19th century.

This pair of squatting figures are meant to be attached to a shaman’s container for keeping ritual objects. Such figures are normally carved by older shamans who are believed to have the power to fend off bad spirits. They are carved infrequently since the old containers are kept and passed from generation to generation.

Fragment of a Priest’s Staff, Iban Wood, 19th/early 20th century

This object was detached from the staff of a Dayak priest used in performing rituals. A feline creature stands on end of the blade. Its tail is reared backwards as though on alert, while the other end is decorated with incised sinuous forms.

The Art of Atauro Island

Pair of Ancestor Figures, Atauro island, off East Timor, Wood. 31 cm and 28 cm, 19th century.

Atauro is a remote island off the coast of Timor Leste (formerly East Timor). The island came to prominence in the 1980s when enigmatic wooden figures like these were discovered by art collectors. Pairs of such figures representing ancestors were hung in house rafters for veneration. This pair still has the cord that tied them together. The distinctive cubic form of such figures and its affinities with modern sculpture have made Atauro figures highly sought after by collectors of both tribal and modern art.

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