Cultures & Traditions

Art and Artists in the Mentawai Islands

The designs of Mentawaian artifacts are very conservative: there is no major differ­ence in form between the oldest specimens preserved in museums, which were created more than 150 years ago, and artifacts for domestic use that have been made in recent times. Paradoxically, however, the strong formal canon invites rather than impedes indi­vidual creativity. The frame it provides comprises models that stimulate original solutions while heeding the dictates of the ancestors. Indeed, any mere replication of a traditional piece would be in direct opposition to a basic Mentawaian conception. Their notion that everything is alive and that, accordingly, every production of new artifacts is equivalent to the creation of a new individual being engenders a permanent innovative confrontation with the working material. And if such individual variations are positively received, they can eventually lead to local changes and thus help to keep the style in ferment despite all its conservatism.

Among the Mentawaians, there are no specialists for the produc­tion of such artifacts, nor is there an understanding or conception of art as a phenomenon separate from other aspects of life. Most of them believe that they can make what we would call “artifacts,” and whoever makes them will be their owner. This understanding is expressed in the double meaning of the word sibakkat . Literally, the term is defined as “stem,” but it also can be translated as both “originator” and “owner.” This equation at least holds true for objects made for daily use. For artifacts used on communal ritual occasions, which are normally not sold or exchanged, the situation is somewhat different in that all members of the group cooperate. The actual carving is always a task for the men; sometimes one man carves the body of a bird, and another the wings. Women take part in its decoration by painting and embellishing it with vegetative materials. A short knife with a curved handle (balugui) is the only special tool used for carving details. For the rougher jobs carvers use axes and machetes.

In principle, every individual in the community is involved in artistic production. However, it does not pass unnoticed that one particular artifact more than others might emanate a formal strength and ingenuity while at the same time revealing unex­pected and surprising details. Just as people in the Mentawaian community know very well who is the most experienced hunter, the most successful pig breeder, or the most elegant dancer on ritual occasions, they will also notice who is the most talented woodcarver. While they do not call him an artist, his ability is acknowledged and known throughout the whole region. That person is proud of his accomplishment; his personal style is recog­nized, and he is admired by others because of his creations. It is to such persons that others will address themselves when artifacts of special importance must be made.

Adapted from

  • Reimar Schefold, "Toys for the Soul: The Art of Mentawai," 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), 29-33.

Related Multimedia

Reimar Schefold discusses how the Mentawai artists approach to the creation of objects