In Focus

Lid with human hands

Most wooden storage containers (bari) from Nias are unremarkable everyday objects. They were often overlooked by Western collec­tors, who were usually more focused on the island’s figural wood or stone sculptures. However, there are a few surviving containers, said to be from the Gomo area, that embody an exceptional level of craftsmanship and artistry. This particular lid is from one of these embellished, partly conical containers —where form, func­tion, and humor are combined in a pleasing and skillful way.

Two hands reach up as though to grip the top of this well-formed lid, pressing down with all five fingers to secure the lid to the container below. Adorning each wrist is a bracelet resembling those fashioned from the type of giant clam shell that was worn by nobles. Along the container’s sides run two rounded parallel contours that match up perfectly with the hands on the bari’s lid to form a pair of arms.

Why hands appear repeatedly in the art of the Ono Niha is an open question. They are occasionally found on spoons (haru) and wooden troughs (l__ahu) used to feed the family pigs, and also on the ends of the beams in large scales used to weigh the flesh of sacrificed pigs at great owasa festivals, and can be said to appear frequently on objects that tend to be handled daily. The motif does seem highly appropriate for the lid of a prized container, as these boxes were used to store ceremonial textiles and jewelry. The idea that the container should be tightly sealed to protect its precious contents from exposure to vermin such as moths and rats—as well as from any prying persons—makes sense. To achieve this, two loopholes were carved on each of the box’s sides to facilitate the tight syncing of the lid to the container’s body with cordage. These boxes were kept in the private quarters of traditional dwellings. Only a few bari of this type are known, and with the exception of this lid from the Dallas Museum of Art, they all still remain in pri­vate collections.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Lid with human hands," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 53.