OCEANIA ARTS - PART 3

THE ARTS OF THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN ISLANDS

The Cult of Ancestor Worship
 
 

With the exception of the kingdoms of Java and Bali, heavily influenced by Indian civilization, the traditional cultures of the islands of southeast Asia have succeeded in perpetuating their artistic and religious customs through two forms of decoration: ritual jewellery and ceremonial fabrics. Far beyond the level of mere craftwork, these objects have recently attracted the interest of collectors. The cult of ancestor worship, meanwhile has initiated a tradition of funerary art among the most inventive and original in the world.

 
 
As Jean-Paul Barbier rightly observed in L'Or des Iles: "The primitive arts in Indonesia and the Philippines and the arts of Melanesia and Polynesia form a triptych, of which it is impossible to separate the panels without compromising any true understanding of the Malayo-Polynesian world, including also Madagscar." yet how dilatory we have been in studying this immense region, with no fewer than 13,000 islands scattered over nearly 2,000 square miles - some huge, such as Borneo, others tiny, such as Lombok. Far from forming separate, rigidly defined entities, these "microsocieties" of ancient seafaring peoples have frequently shared the same customs and rituals, including head-hunting, the use of communal houses or chief's houses, and above all ancestor worship.
 
Yet the history of these "primitive" Asian populations is peppered with more doubts than certainties, and it would be futile (if not presumptuous) to make any claims to an exhaustive study of their artistic output. What exactly do we know, for instance about the tribes conveniently lumped together under the name Dayak, whose works are found innumerous museums and private collections? Collected in Borneo, these pieces are seductive in their "savage beauty," but according to ethnologists, the great majority of them will remain forever silent with regard to their original context. but their aura of mystery apart, it is impossible not to be lost in admiration in front of the virtuoso workmanship of these shields and their curvilinear decoration, of these tombs in the form of houses, or of these powerful wooden posts and panels over which swamps a bestiary intended to ward off evil. At a time when the penetration of Islam into even the remotest villages on the island means inevitably that these cultures will be destroyed within the next few decades, we should be grateful to the collectors who over the years have saved from destruction and oblivion the tens of thousands of objects now preserved in the West. The systematic study of these pieces will perhaps enable ethnologists to provide the answers to many as yet unanswered questions. Other peoples, meanwhile - such as the Toraja of Sulawesi, the Batak of northern Sumatra and the inhabitants of the islands of Nias, Flores and Sumba - appear to be much better known.
 
 
What traveller in search of the exotic would not be set dreaming by the image of the majestic houses with curved roofs on the island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes)? Perched on their tall stilts, they look like proud ships, or strange shipwrecks washed up among thee grandiose mountain landscapes. A Toraja house is not merely the material and tangible sign of the prosperity of the family that dwells there: it is also a symbol o the cosmos. The roof represents the sky, the inhabited parts of the earth, the lower floor the under underworld, and the central pillar the axis of the universe. The counterpart to the "house of the living" is the "house from which no smoke escapes," or the tomb, which may assume the lofty shape of a buffalo (the sacred beast par excellence) or a dwelling house, or a rough-hewn grotto or cave. A carved wooden figure, richly arrayed, watches over the corpse and is believed to shelter its soul, scrutinizing the world of the living with its eyes made from shells.
 
Tarnished with he unenviable reputation of being bloodthirsty cannibals, the Batak inhabit the land to the south of Lake Toba and on the Samosir peninsula, in tall and extremely handsome houses with twin-pointed roofs reaching proudly up to the sky. Sorcerers' knives encrusted with human teeth, magic staffs topped with feathers, buffalo horns intended as containers for various concoctions and fetish sticks (pagar), frequently "powered" by human sacrifices, reflect the omnipresent nature of magic in these regions, where the powers of the healer-soothsayer are apparently infinite. The science of datu (comprising magic spells, recipes and performances) is even consigned to sheets of bark in a form of writing derived from ancient Javanese and created - most exceptionally among a people described as "primitive" - by the Toba themselves. but the inhabitants of northern Sumatra have left the clearest traces of their genius in their splendid stone sculptures of their ancestors: proud horsemen astride mounts hovering improbably between buffalo, horse and anke (a protective monster known to the Batak as singa), severe effigies whose austere features verge on portraiture.
 
 
The profoundly hierarchical warlike culture that flourished on the little island of Nias (until the early 20th century, when it succumbed to the two-pronged attack of Dutch colonialism and Christianity) also honored its ancestors in reverent fashion. To judge by their quality, magnificent hardwood statues fashioned in memory of the dad, and depicting, dignitaries or chiefs wearing turbans or arrayed with jewels, were the work of true artists. In stark contrast to these portraits are crude effigies of mythical ancestors, eyes bulging, brandishing their genitals. While the Nage on the island of Flores placed their ritual statues in pairs on the threshold of small buildings on the outskirts of villages, close to the sea (the masculine figure always on the right and the female figure on the left), the inhabitants of Sumba preferred to place their spirit couples, male and female, around fences, steps and stone foundations. These divinities were never addressed directly, but were rather approached through the intervention of intermediaries, who had to be invoked and cajoled. another contrast emerges between the astonishing realism of these stone figures and the extreme stylization of the statues found on the island of Atauro, not far from Timor, the rough angularity of which is almost reminiscent of the work of Lipchitz.
 
Jewellery and Ornamentation: The Memory of Peoples Without Writing
 
Far from serving merely for flirtation and coquetry, the jewellery of the 'primitive' peoples of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is the traditional expression of a veritable 'language' that anthropologists have only recently started to attempt to decipher. constituting the domestic treasure handed down by inheritance, these parures are accurate reflections of the social position of their owners. In their forms, colors and designs, moreover, they are a symbolic expression not only of family and blood ties but also of myths and rituals. Exchanged at marriage ceremonies, finally, metal and fabric jewellery also plays an important part in systems of economic exchange between tribes and ethnic groups, and on a broader level between the coastal and inland populations of the islands. Any signs that these parures are starting to disappear are cause for concern, for - in the words of the collector Jean-Paul Barbier - 'it is the entire history of a people without written records that vanishes with them.'
 
In those circumstances, how would we begin to study of the ritual goldwork produced in the Southeast Asian archipelago? Caution: each ornament should be decoded in the same way as a complex text with several layers of meaning. ... the particular form of a piece of goldwork, the process by which it was made and its place of origin may also reveal large slices of the social history of an ethnic group or village. Nor should we forget the extent to which jewellery formed a part of body decoration as a whole, alongside tattooing, the wearing of particular garments, weapons or masks, the decoration and even filing of teeth, and of course face and body painting. Sophisticated systems of communication, all these forms of ornamentation indicated in their own way, and for both sexes, the transition from one social category or phase of life to another: from adolescence to adulthood, for instance, or from life to preparation for the great voyage to the "other world."
 
But first and foremost, jewellery remains unrivalled as the most obvious means of broadcasting to all the extent of the family fortunes and the elevation of social rank. Thus, noble families in the Batak regions of Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia appropriated to themselves the right to own and wear jewellery in precious metals, relegating more ephemeral decorations made from shells, feathers and bone to the less well-off. It was a practice fostered by Portuguese merchants, swiftly followed by their Dutch and British counterparts, who produced showers of gold and silver coins which could be melted down to feed this hunger for showy decoration. The raja, or local chiefs of sumba elected not to wear these jewels personally, however, but rather to heap them on their personal slaves, who represented them like mannequins at important ceremonies. Arrayed in all the paraphernalia of royalty, these slaves thus served as intermediaries with the community as a whole. Hereditary jewels, meanwhile, were carefully preserved in the family house, or adat, and revered as solemnly as holy relics. Should anyone be reckless enough to sell them to foreigners or exchange them at a marriage ceremony curses would rain down upon his head. In some Indonesian societies, these hoards of antique blades, old fabrics, jars and bowls imported from China, as well as ornaments in gold, silver, copper and even brass, were invested with powerful magical properties.
 
 
But more than all these things, the jewelry of the Southeast Asian islands acted as an essential form of mediation, not only between the sexes and different social ranks, but also between different parts of the cosmos. Thus, within the highly regulated framework of marriage gifts, the "givers of the wife" presented "feminine" fabrics to the "takers of the wife," who in return offered "masculine" metal in the form of valuable ornaments. Nowadays, this form of exchange has largely transcended the context of ritual marriage transactions in order to "espouse" the dimensions of the international art market.
 
 
What therefore remains of the religious symbolism once attached to this secular finery? In the eyes of the Sa'adan Toraja, there still exists a mythical relationship between the ritual activity of the smith, the origins of metalworking and the creation of humanity. Hence, anyone who treats the precious ornaments kept in carved wooden houses in a casual or offhand way does so at their peril. The majority of "traditional" jewellery appears to have lost its ritual status, however: Now highly coveted works of art, these pieces inevitably finish their long journeys in the display cases of museums or private collectors. It is a reflection that could be applied with equal justice to numerous "primitive" objects - masks, idols or fetishes - which have been transformed by the vagaries of fashion or the dictates of good taste into objects of pleasure, pure and simple. Unless of course they could be said to embody in some way the final "grigris" of a West in constant quest of spirituality.
 
EPILOGUE
 

"Western man is no longer master of the world: standing before him now are no longer "natives," but interlocutors. We should know how to open the discussion; it is indispensable to recognize that there no longer exists a solution of continuity between the 'primitive' or 'backward' world and the West of today. It is no longer enough, as it was half a century ago, to discover and admire negro or Oceanian art; we must rediscover the spiritual sources of these arts in ourselves." Such is the earnest hope expressed by Mircea Eliade in her moving treaty, Mythes, reves et mysteres (1989).

 
At a time when Apollinaire's dream of seeing masterpieces of "primitive" art taking their place alongside the classical sculptures and old masters in the Louvre is in the process of becoming a reality, how anachronistic it seems to have to justify such an enterprise! Displaying masks and "fetishes" a few hundred yards from the Venus de Milo should be acclaimed universally as a gesture that is as symbolic as it is moving. Yet the small world of ethnologists, art historians, collectors and dealers continues to be shaken to its foundations by impassioned debate and violent argument - not to mention the numerous political ambitions and sterile rivalries that have also come into play. At the dawn of the third millennium, when such questions should no longer prompt the slightest murmur of reproach, the continuing crusade for the complete rehabilitation of the primal arts has something incongruous, even shocking, about it.
 
As ever, practising artists appear once again to have refuted in most dazzling fashion such nervous, fearful or corporate reactions: Western painters who have dipped their brushes in the humid heat of Africa, such as the young Spanish painter Miquel Barcelo' and African artists who, with a kind of poetic justice, now seek inspiration in the Western classical tradition, such as the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow with his Masai and Peul warriors displaying echoes of Michelangelo. Leaving aside all art historical jargon, we have no choice but to recognize the exceptional vitality of artists from the regions of the world covered on these Oceania Arts Web sites , in fields ranging from painting to photography and even cinema. Where once all took place under the watchful gaze of the Other, now artists are contemplating and taking inspiration from their own imaginary worlds and their creations, and from their past, their religions and their traditions.
 
 
Battered and bruised by frequent wars, epidemics and other terrible scourges, Africa is nevertheless turning its attention to the vestiges of its past and attempting to contain both looting and extortion. The notion of heritage is taking shape, as its that of museums, while African universities are now reclaiming the role usurped for so many years by Western archaeologists, ethnologists and scientists. In the countries of Oceania, the distinguished reputation of certain contemporary artists stands a sweet revenge for the prolonged humiliation and iconoclastic destruction suffered under colonial rule. Hackneyed and lost for inspiration, old Europe, meanwhile, still casts covetous glances in the direction of th4se masks, "fetishes" and "idols," and the frenzied collecting continues unabated. This "acceptable" exoticism is now quite respectable, invading galleries, smart interiors in the world's great capital cities and even tourist brochures. What could be more thri8lling than a Dogon masked dance or a Toraja death ritual, with their frisson of Otherness and just the right amount of well-spiced (and carefully controlled) savagery? While ethnologists attempt to collect every scrap of first-hand information about vanishing and bastardized traditions, rituals and costumes, art historians now at last have the courage to look freely at objects whose intrinsic beauty sometimes transcends the cultural context and environment in which they were produced. Too often at odds with each other, these two worlds have everything to gain by sharing their discussions and sensibilities.
 
 
In conclusion, may we offer a modest piece of advice to the lay person for whom these Web sites are intended: open your eyes, without prejudice or reserve, but with delight and even passion, explore, sample and discover "Beauty" in all its many and unexpected forms - whether in a Batcham mask with bulging cheeks from Cameroon, in the multicoloured checks of an Asante fabric from Ghana, in a hammered gold ornament from the islands of Southeast Asia or in plant-based textures of a funerary effigy from Vanuatu.  And may these Web sites serve to open and offer guidance in this stirring and ineluctably subjective quest. 
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Oceania Art
 
Melanesia Origins
 
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 26th June 2009) 
 

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