Cultures & Traditions

Traditional Arts in Timorese Cultures

In the past, ethnological fieldwork on Timor has been carried out only on a very small scale, and field research into the material cul­ture has been extremely scarce. Earliest information comes from colonial civil servants in Dutch territory, and also from Dutch mis­sionary workers. Missionary and ethnologist Dr. B. A. G. Vroklage made the first outstanding contributions in his fieldwork and pub­lications. In the service of the Catholic Church, he worked among the Tetun in the Belu region and, in the midst of his other interests, studied the arts. “Foreign” (that is, non-Dutch) researchers did not start working on the island until the second half of the 20th century. During this time period, scholars became somewhat more focused on East Timor. As compared to publications on the cultures of West Timor, research into the art of East Timor has always been limited.

Considering all of the available fieldwork and research informa­tion, and keeping in mind the limited studies of some regions, one interesting conclusion becomes clear: no single art form appears to characterize traditional Timorese art. Here, distinctive, impressive decorative and fine art forms have developed. Women excelled at the manufac­ture of cotton ikat fabrics with ingenious, attractive patterns, while men were responsible for making, among other masterworks, beau­tifully decorated horn spoons and containers of bone and bamboo.

Examining these art forms reveals the close ties among the cul­tures of the island. A remarkable uniformity of style and design elements is found, which supersedes Timor’s ethnolinguistic diversity. This is most noticeable in the recurring images of certain animals (lizardlike figures, birds, crocodiles) and standing anthropomorphic figures, as well as in the way many geometric patterns (such as diamond shapes and decorative bands) have been rendered. Within this unity, we can observe local aesthetic characteristics throughout the island, reflecting both specific eth­nic identity and the degree of interaction of Timorese groups with the outside world.

In addition to locally produced forms of art, Timorese princedoms also contained remarkable quantities of beautiful objects from other regions. Primary among these imported items were gold and silver jew­elry, weaponry, and bead necklaces. Examination of such items is desirable, not only to advance our understanding of local material culture but also because of larger symbolic and religious asso­ciations. On Timor, diverse works of art, both homemade and imported, usually had “hidden” meanings that superseded their practical uses. They reflected the core values of Timorese society and as such acted on a symbolic as well as a practical level.

A rare, but nonetheless significant category of import goods on Timor consisted of wares that were ironically referred to as “jewelry of state” by the Dutch civil servant H. J. Grijzen in his report on Central Timor. Even so, these objects played a major role on the island. The objects mentioned by Grijzen can be understood as state regalia—extraordinary wares that embodied political power—and they were heavily used throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The positions of the early rulers of Java and South Sulawesi pro­vide striking examples: their power was legitimized because they owned specific heirlooms—which could even transform them into the earthly personifications of deities.

For centuries, a similar situation prevailed on Timor. Traditional rulers throughout the region inherited and passed on sacred objects, which were believed to yield both fertility and victory in war. Sources record that such objects were usually kept in one of two places: the items ensuring fertility hung within the walls of the royal palace, and objects with potency to kill were stored outside, in sacrificial temples built especially for that purpose.

Many of the sacred objects were imported goods. Apparently it was the powers inherent in these objects that were considered to be supernatural. Aside from their religious significance, they also played a major role at strategic and political levels: the functional efficacy of the objects determined the balance of power to a great extent between the princedoms.

The royal court not only performed a role on the religious and politi­cal levels but also was an important model of society, to which it is possible to connect the deeper meaning of many pieces of art. The basic principle was that the Timorese ruler was the primary representative of the community enclosed within the boundaries of his princedom. The ruler was the ultimate symbol of his people, and through his person and actions, society was united. For good reason he would therefore be called the “father and mother” of the community.

What exactly this meant is made clear by the organization of power in the traditional princedoms. Although the ruler had abso­lute power, in practice, authority was divided between two people. The ruler himself primarily performed a role as the spiritual leader. He was depicted in various ways as a feminine, introverted, inac­tive person who, by making sacrifices, concerned himself with the fertility of the land. As “son of God,” he was supposed to ensure the arrival of enough rain. He was the “bringer of coolness”; through him a good harvest was assured.

Simultaneously, however, a worldly leader operated in his name. This leader was active as an executive power in times of “heat,” meaning war. This was why in some areas he was referred to by the title of kolnel (derived from the Dutch word for “colonel”). The kolnel took care of all matters of government, administered justice, and collected taxes. He was regarded as the male, active, and extroverted counterpart to the spiritual leader.

Both aspects of the ruler make it perfectly clear what Timorese society was all about: fertility and battle, the latter aimed at main­taining the reputation of a princedom. Both of these core values were united in the person of the ruler, the symbol of society. In fact, the royal model encompassed the social roles of men and women. As complementary aspects, both were necessary to preserve a princedom.

A characteristic of East Indonesian cultures, including that of Timor, is the importance of the material culture in reflecting these social values. The overall model of society would typically be expressed in the architecture and layout of the houses of ori­gin, whereas the various constituent values were usually related to smaller, specific works of art. Consequently, many of the items possessed symbolic meanings, associated either with “masculine” heat (the struggle for status) or “feminine” cool­ness (fertility).

The nature or materials of the objects regularly played a role in these associations. Textiles, for example, were habitually regarded as feminine because they were produced by women and were made of cotton, which is a product of the earth, a great source of fertility. However, associations could also have an entirely different frame­work. This was the case with some jewelry that was recognized as masculine. The large, golden pectoral plates, for example, are known to be associated with headhunting in East Timor. Such plates were actually regarded as honorary tokens, which a warrior would receive as a reward for each severed head. In fact, the jewelry represented headhunting trophies.

The symbolic meaning of objects mattered particularly in a ritual context. Through the use of ceremonial language and the application of specific goods, messages were relayed in a metaphor­ical way. A splendid reflection of this can be found in the traditional wedding ceremony, in which both status and fertility, presented as material items, played a prominent part.

Through the presentation of the feminine goods—and the bride—the wife-givers handed over fertility to the wife-takers. To the latter group, the family of the bride represented a source of life on which they felt dependent for the survival of their own group. This subsidiary position was also reflected in the bride price. Through the donation of indicators of status and weaponry to the wife-givers, the wife-takers essentially placed their mascu­line forces in the service of the woman’s family. This was no trivial gesture. The wife-takers were the first to be called upon in case of war. Because permanent relations often developed between wife-givers and wife-takers, these ties into which the families had entered were cherished and repeat­edly reaffirmed. For instance, when births or deaths occurred, they would ritually exchange, once again, masculine and feminine works of art.

Even today this exchange of objects with symbolic connotations still occurs, but the modern age also makes itself felt on Timor. In the case of the bride price, money often replaces the traditional objects as an indicator of status, while nowadays the counter-presentation is increasingly made up of, besides textiles, kitchen utensils that are considered feminine. This shows that the sym­bolic system of the old princedoms has in fact endured. With the disappearance of traditional pieces of art on the island, however, this centuries-old system has become much less typically Timorese.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Traditional Art in Timorese Princedoms," 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), 245-251.