In Focus

Seated male ancestor figure, 2003.31

One of the most noticeable basic forms in the traditional arts of Island Southeast Asia is the squatting position of carved anthropomorphic figures: the knees are raised in front of or to the right and left of the body. At one time, this sculptural form was widespread and could be found in Taiwan, the Philippines, parts of Borneo and Sulawesi, and—very prominently—in the Southeast Moluccas. This artistic form is associated with the so-called Austronesian cultural complex. There exists both linguistic and archaeological evidence to suggest that this complex, which originated in southern China, spread from Taiwan and the Philippines to Indonesia in the third millennium BCE.

The object shown here is a beautiful example of such a squatting figure. It was collected on the island of Leti, in western Maluku Tenggara, at the end of the 19th century and represents an ancestor. Traditionally ancestors have been of great importance to the islanders. In the sourthern Moluccas, fertility and status are the most important social values, and these cannot be obtained without ancestral help.

The creation of these ancestor figures was strongly connected to ideas about the nature of mankind. In general terms, a person is regarded as a being in whom two elements have merged: first, a sort of anonymous "vital force" that expresses itself in the physical growth and movement of the body; second, something that can be described as a person's "self," an element that, by earlier missionaries, was compared to the "soul" or "spirit." "Self" refers to personal characteristics and is thus associated with a person's name, facial features, voice, bodily shape, and even reflection or shadow. The islanders describe the self as a person's "shadow image."

In contrast to someone's vital force, this shadow image is considered immortal. After death, it continues to be socially active, while the vital force ebbs away as the body decays. Until the mid-20th century—a period in which Christianity gained ground—wooden figures were carved to serve as a point of contact with the deceased. The shadow image could take up residence in such a figure, allowing descendants to communicate with him or her. Female ancestors were addressed mainly on matters concerning fertility, whereas the male ancestors were called upon for status issues.

In many instances, the carved statue reflected the individual characteristics of the deceased. In the case of this Leti statue, for instance, the gender had been portrayed very prominently (the amputation of the penis is a "souvenir" of Protestant influence). The ear ornament identifies this figure as a member of the local nobility. Finally, the sheer size of the figure signifies an important person; statues of ordinary ancestors were usually only a couple of inches tall.

Leti statues were usually kept in a house's attic. An activation ritual with a ceremonial meal was performed here for each newly carved statue. To "lure" the shadow image of the deceased into the statue (as its new seat, or home), the statue was first placed on a golden disk (mas bulan, see 2008.69). Next, the statue, which now possessed the "shadow image," was taken up to the attic, where the deceased was fed by placing food in front of the statue and rubbing palm wine on its lips. The ceremony was rounded off with a meal for the family.

Because of their striking craftsmanship and aesthetic design, squatting statues from Malukku Tenggara became collectors' items early on, and they often appear in Western museum collections. In the 20th century, several experts attempted to assign them to clearly defined style groups. Looking comprehensively, however, an analysis of style can be made only very broadly. Shortages of drinking water, along with a state of enduring warfare in the area, resulted in what was essentially a continual process of migration. Families that had their roots in Leti would, for example, move to Babar or Tanimbar and vice versa. According to some analyses, details such as a large triangular nose or tapering torso are typical for Letinese sculpture; however, given the fluidity and migrations in the region, we must be cautious in the assignment of stylistic and regional categories.

Still, it is feasible to argue that the squatting figures of eastern Maluku Tenggara are usually designed in a more rugged and less painstaking way than are the statues of the western islands. Generally, the foremost style feature distinguishing one region from the other appears to be the position of the arms. On Leti and its surrounding areas, the arms usually rest folded on the knees in a horizontal plane with the shoulders, as in the Dallas statue. Conversely, on Tanimbar, for example, it is usually the elbows that are resting on the knees while the arms are held upward, often clasping a sacrificial bowl.

In any event, because of their particular, often artistic style, nearly all sculptures from the Southeast Moluccas are endowed with their own unique appearance. Indeed, the religious art of Maluku Tenggara is justifiably considered to be among the most fascinating in Indonesia.

Excerpt from

Nico de Jonge, "Seated male ancestor figure," 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), 282-283.