Cultures & Traditions

Toys for the Soul: The Art of Mentawai

The Mentawaians take pride in producing their own ceremonial paraphernalia, conveyances, utensils, and other essential items for daily life, all with the utmost care. To make a beautifully shaped, well-balanced dugout canoe, or a well-smoothed bow with skillfully ornamented ends, or a shiny black polished container fashioned out of a coconut shell and decorated with incised patterns, there are models handed down by tradition. In contrast to most other eth­nic groups in Indonesia, such traditional objects are still produced today among the people of the interior. When an object satisfies the traditional requirements, it is called makire, which means some­thing like “exactly corresponding,” and its producer is praised for its quality.

One of the requirements for an object to qualify as makire is technical perfection. Another requirement regards its aesthetic execution: its outward form, ornamentation, and decoration. The Mentawaians possess a rich canon of inherited forms and patterns, which is at the artists’ disposal and serves as a stimulus for their creations. This artistic canon provides a frame; within its confines there is a certain artistic freedom.

Typical of the conventional designs are various forms of the spiral motif, as well as related geometrical forms that can still be encountered in most present-day Indonesian traditional art practices. The arrangement of these forms and elements can be traced back to two representational principles. The one most frequently encountered is a repetition of identical elements in a row. The second involves a strictly symmetrical arrangement of mirrored configurations. The same controlled regularity can also be observed in tattoo motifs. It even appears in ritual dances, the patterns of which are characterized by precise single-file or mirror-image movements of the participants.

Along with the ornamental use of scrolling, spirals, and other geometric designs, figural representations of animals and humans in the round, in relief, or incised are part of the Mentawaians’ artistic repertoire. Carved and painted wooden birds are put up in community houses during grand rituals with their fronts always pointing toward the entrance. Due to their pleasing forms, they are known as “toys for the souls” (umat simagere ). Carvers explain that before fashioning a bird, they carefully observe birds in nature. Whenever the result of their work turns out to be life­like, such a carved bird is labeled as makire. Strangely enough, this realism does not apply to the way the bird is painted, which by tradition makes use of the same spirals, stripes, and dots that char­acterize ornaments in general and thus contrasts quite strikingly with the natural model.

The characterization of these birds as “toys for the souls” refers to the Mentawaian belief that everything—human, animal, and plant, but also every object—lives and has a simagere, a spiritual component or soul. All souls are capable of separating themselves from their possessors. As a kind of invisible double, they wander around, having their own experiences, both good and bad. That is why a person must take great care to lead an attractive life. This includes beauty in physical appearance: tattoos as well as painting one’s body and adorning oneself. The beauty of the group’s communal house is also a factor, along with the flowers planted around the house and the carved wooden figures decorating the walls. But first and foremost, an attractive life includes beautiful festivities, sometimes lasting sev­eral months. Otherwise the soul will feel neglected—it will desert its owner and move in with the ancestors. Then the owner dies. In other words, beauty is a prerequisite for life.

The “toys for the souls” help to prevent any errant souls of the uma’s, or longhouse, inhabitants from going too far away by attracting them back into the house. Moreover they lure the souls of game animals as a precondition for success in hunting. However, these birds are not only supposed to attract various souls but are also con­ceived as being endowed with souls of their own. And these souls must be respected, too. This can mean that while fashioning a bird, its creator must somehow let himself be guided by the object he is working on. Maybe he starts out with the intention to make an eagle, but during the process of its carving he realizes that the form begins to resemble a dove. In this case, the carver will not try to insist on his original idea, but will adapt himself to the apparent desires emanating from within the material itself and will simply end up carving a dove.

Thus within every artifact there is a living entity. Such items can­not simply be used as objects at will but rather are subjects that may allow people to make use of them. Therefore, an item should not be clumsily produced. Otherwise, it will feel as though it is not being well suited to its category and will be less fit for its intended functions. For instance, a shield will provide good protection only if it can feel like a shield. In other words, its form should match what a proper shield should look like, and its ornamental decorations must be carefully rendered, as these attributes were handed down from the ancestors.

In still another respect, the soul of an object plays a role. There is one more seminal term that Mentawaians use to judge the aesthetic value of an object: mateu. In contrast to makire, mateu is not an absolute statement, as it is directed toward the relation of a given object with a perceived context. This term is perhaps best translated by equating it with the word “fitting.” A huge carved bird in a small house is not mateu; it does not fit in. A clumsily carved bow in the hands of an experienced hunter is not mateu either. Yet it can happen that one’s relationship with an object is affected by the object’s particular soul, which can exercise or exert its own influence over the object’s owner in different ways. Take, for example, the clumsily carved bow. It may not appear to be fit­ting per se, but perhaps for a certain hunter this bow may turn out to be exactly the right one, since experience has shown him that he is most successful while hunting with this particular bow. The bow fits and is correct for him. On the other hand, it can also hap­pen that a bow that actually is makire does not bring a good hunter any luck. This bow is not mateu for him. In both cases, the term can be explained only in relation to the fact that the bow possesses an individual soul: the first bow harmonizes with the hunter, the second one does not. The idea of everything possessing a soul (a worldview that is often called “animistic”) thus inspires the need for technical and aesthetic perfection in the fabrication of an object.

The realistic ideal that the Mentawaians cherish concerning the depiction of birds is also applied to other figural representations. Working within the framework of their creative canon, Mentawaians regard what they create as being true to nature and therefore realistic. However, even when the Mentawaian image aims at the realistic, to the eyes of an outside observer it may still appear strongly stylized. Further, distinct details, rather than mimetic likeness, often determine what is to be considered realistic or not. In times of headhunting, frontal human figures were carved in relief to commemorate the killing of an enemy and then inserted as pan­els along the inner walls of the uma. Even today, certain wild animals such as monitor lizards, monkeys, and croco­diles are occasionally carved in relief on doors and panels. Representational details also appear on the arms of suspension hooks, the handles of daggers, or carved wooden floats for sea-turtle nets that often terminate in the depiction of small feet or of the heads of animals. Often, monkeys, too, are carved on the lids or etched into the surfaces of containers made of coconut.

Even as the artifacts in the Dallas Museum of Art are now appreciated as “art” by audiences that are far removed from their time, place, and original cultural domain, an examination of the twin notions of mateu and makire enriches our understanding of the objects.

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

Learn about the Mentawai people.
Special event lecture in conjunction with celebration of new Indonesian object acquisitions; DMA Collection; speaker is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Sociology of Indonesia, Leiden University
Special event lecture in conjunction with celebration of new Indonesian object acquisitions; DMA Collection; speaker is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Sociology of Indonesia, Leiden University
Anthropologist Reimar Shefold discusses the Mentawai people.