In Focus

Male Ancestor Figure (itara)

Itara are highly conventionalized wooden images representing a family’s most prominent founding ancestors. They were bound in cordage and hung from the “branches” of a forked post (rumah tara). Rumah tara were erected at the rear of the dwelling, an area that is considered to belong to the core of the male end of the house. These figures were always paired in couples and thus honored generational continuity while also reflecting the general Atuaroan belief in the inherent duality of all things. In Atauro, one’s religious and social standing were expressed in the number of figures affixed to one’s family rumah tara. Most houses had only one pair of itara, but more prominent families displayed up to three pairs of figures.

Itara were suspended so that their feet faced the house. This placement was believed to promote vigilance, as itara maintained the well-being of the dwelling and its inhabitants. To enlist their assistance in apprehending thieves, prayers were addressed to these figures, as were offerings that included one hundred areca nuts, betel leaves, fish, and wine. After a transgres­sor’s capture, there followed a ritual confession. Thieves could be forced to recant before the offended itara, where they humbled themselves by saying: “In fact, it is preordained that I am sent back to you to look for my soul.” Such were the considerable powers once ascribed to itara.

Given its large size, this male figure must have represented an important person and belonged to a very prominent family. As ancestor figures generally hung for display, all these images are of the same basic form: slightly bent at the knees, with arms and shoulders characteristically akimbo and rolled forward. Most itara are more abstracted, their planes more sharply edged. The Dallas itara is exceptional for its large size, sensitively shaped head, almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose, and jutting chin. Additionally, the image’s native cordage is still intact, and a traditional loincloth is wrapped around the great ancestor’s loins.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Ancestor figure (itara)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 268-269.