Cultures & Traditions

A Wider Worldview in Traditional Indonesian Cultures

Everywhere in Indonesia, but most especially in the west, one encounters a consistent worldview. The cosmos is made up of a middle realm in which we live, and above and below it an upper world and an underworld, both realms inhabited by gods, spirits, and demonic creatures. This notion is reflected in figurative and ornamental designs produced by virtually all ethnic groups. The three realms are said to be connected by a cosmic tree (in literature often called the “tree of life”) that has its roots in the underworld and penetrates the upper world at the top. It is believed that the cosmos is supported by a gigantic buffalo that inhabits the underworld; when the beast is angry, it causes earthquakes. Representational symbols of the cosmic order have a positive, protec­tive function. Over the course of history, each ethnic group has developed its own way of reproducing these ancient symbols. These motifs rep­resent collective conceptions and have no aesthetic significance of their own. They are simply at the disposal, as it were, of the indi­vidual artist; they are part of the canon from which he or she can draw when creating a new artwork. It is only the artist’s creative use of it that makes the resulting object a work of art.

In the dry regions of eastern Indonesia another worldview has survived in addition to the notion of a three-part cosmos—a dualistic concept that opposes a male sky and a female earth.They are united in a kind of “sacred marriage,” and in the form of rain he makes her fertile. Their union ensures fertility to the living. This notion is widespread beyond Indonesia, on the islands of Oceania. Eastern Indonesian represen­tations of a sky god thought to be the consort of Mother Earth are in any case a reflection of the dualistic view. In village centers, the sky god can be seen atop a pole, often squatting in a boat that has been interpreted as a reference to the earth goddess. The earthly realm is evoked in figural images as well. The idea of an ancient marriage between the male progenitor and a creature of the wilderness is reflected in totem­like associations between individual family groups and specific animals. Objects representing these associations were created in various materials and were intended to protect their owners. In other Indonesian regions, figures of gods are virtually nonexistent. Depictions of mythical creatures, by contrast, are all the more abundant. Again and again, we encounter figures from one realm or another of the three-level cosmos.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," 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), 17-27.