In Focus

Ear ornament or pendant (mamuli)

Avidly sought by museums and private collectors, gold and silver earrings (mamuli) from Sumba are perhaps the most widely admired type jewelry from eastern Indonesia. The antecedents of today's mamuli can be traced to Southeast Asia, and ancient examples in metal and greenstone have been found in archaeological contexts in Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Related mamuli forms and shapes are found today on many Indonesian islands, but the shimmering gold and silver earrings of Sumba are unsurpassed.

Mamuli are considered either male or female, their overall shape being simliar to the uppercase Greek letter omega. Male mamuli are more lavishly decorated with beadwork and braid work and have bases (feet) on which stand a variety of human, animal, and bird figures, and narrative tableaux depicting warriors and equestrians. Female mamuli are simpler and do not have "legs." Contemporary informants state that whether male or female, Sumbanese mamuli represent the female vulva and, thus, fertility.

Although similar in appearance, mamuli are not of equal value and importance, and factors such as age, size, quality, and historical significance serve to determine their specific context and use. The most valuable were worn and displayed only on important ceremonial occasions. They also played an especially important role in marriage exchanges and funerals, and served as sacred altar objects employed by priests to contact the spirits (marapu). Some especially valued and sacred mamuli from East Sumba could be taken down from their special storage areas in the attic of clan houses only after one had taken careful ritual precautions; these scared items were charged with the "heat" of intense spiritual power. Fewer restrictions were imposed on the use and function of West Sumbanese mamuli. During special adat ceremonies, large numbers of gold and silver ornaments, including mamuli, are today worn by young girls in ostentatious displays of wealth and social position.

This simple, bold, and powerful mamuli is from West Sumba, differing from others found in East Sumba that are more delicate, elaborate, and Baroque in feeling. The patina and wear of this extraordinary ornament indicate considerable age. On its unusually wide "legs" stand opposing horsemen who sit astride their sturdy mounts with assurance and pride. Horses are always depicted on mamuli with tails held high; over time the horse's tail at the left has been lost, although without any diminution of its regal posture. Equestrian figures represent the exalted status of noblemen. In this particularly fine example, valued gold has been transformed into a strikingly lustrous statement of wealth, status, and privilege.

Many mamuli and other gold ornaments were apparently not made by local Sumbanese. The literature seems to indicate that the majority are the work of itinerant specialists from the nearby islands of Savu and Ndao, of Savunese settlers on Sumba, or of Chinese metalsmiths. In recent years, the Sumbanese have also employed Balinese or Chinese-Indonesian goldsmiths to fabricate new pieces or repair older examples. These unnamed metalsmiths have created works of lasting beauty that are integral to all aspects of Sumbanese life.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "Ear ornament or pendant (mamuli)," 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), 214-215.