Cultures & Traditions

The Art of the Batak

The Batak art objects at the Dallas Museum of Art come exclusively from the Toba, one of the six ethnic groups included under the umbrella term “Batak.” The general remarks about Batak culture and art that follow apply primarily to the Toba Batak.

Rapid change has taken place in the Batak culture since the beginning of the 20th century. Indigenous religious beliefs were forsaken in favor of Christianity and Islam, and ritual objects lost their importance. Sacred heirlooms (pusaka) became increas­ingly superfluous. Many objects were abandoned or were sold. In the present day, authentic and artistically valuable objects are scarcely available among the Batak. Aesthetically unique artifacts are sold at high prices on the international art mar­ket because of their rarity.

In the pre-Christian era, priest-magicians (datu) produced three-dimensional sculptures made of wood, or occasionally of stone, on behalf of villages, families, or individuals. The function of these sculptures was always magical and religious, never decora­tive. A datu carved the cult objects in his own style, according to his own abilities, and based on his level of knowledge. Among the Batak, all ancestor figures, ritual objects, and representations of primeval mythological creatures were fashioned exclusively by the datu. The importance of these objects came not so much from their artistry as from their magical-religious potency. Even so, fig­ural representations could also be highly valued for their beauty; such objects were preserved as sacred heirlooms in long-since Christianized families for many generations. In contrast, house­hold furnishings such as chests, wooden boxes, containers for provisions, and so on were either made by the head of the house himself or commissioned from skilled carvers who were not datu. Such utilitarian carvings included ornaments wholly unrelated to religious concepts.

The great stylistic variety characteristic of Batak works of art is based not only on the individual skill of their creators, but also on geographic and ethnic factors. In addition to the resident datu in the villages, there were also traveling datu in Batakland, who plied their trade in the regions of other Batak groups. Circumstances such as the search for temporary work, permanent migration into neighboring regions, interethnic marriages, and cultural mingling in border regions attest to a permeability of the cultural bound­aries between the individual Batak groups and their neighbors that should not be underestimated. During the period when the old religion was still intact and the datu's objects still had ritual functions to fulfill, religious sculptures were certainly more resistant to this cultural permeability than was the case with everyday objects and, in terms of their artistic design and style, were subject to a stronger standardization, at least in the pre-Christian era.

Artistically designed objects are found in all areas of Batak life. However, a family’s possessions were modest in pre-Christian times. Everything was produced from materials that were col­lected or traded. Clothing was made of spun and woven cotton; household objects and tools were made of wood, bamboo, clay, and different metals; various pieces of wickerwork were made of palm leaves or rattan; jewelry was made of bronze, brass, silver, and gold. Furthermore, various specialized craftsmen, including goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, and woodcarvers, designed numerous utilitarian objects, from house façades to sword hilts. Batak produced their own weapons, swapped them with neighbor­ing groups, or brought them back as trophies from raids. Chinese and Thai ceramics, as well as earthenware, woven bags, and betel boxes made by northern and southern neighbors, were of foreign origin. These products found their way into Batakland through tra­ditional trade routes, adding to the diversity of styles and materials in the region. Other finished products from the coastal regions or other parts of the world first came into Batakland with the advent of Christian missionaries and Dutch colonial rulers toward the end of the 19th century.

The art of woodcarving was profoundly changed as a result of growing Christianization, integration into the Dutch colonial empire, and the increasing number of travelers to this region. Not only did much of the indigenous paraphernalia in the possession of the datu become superfluous, since this material was not com­patible with Christian beliefs, but the introduction of the colonial monetary economy also destroyed the traditional exchange struc­tures. Numerous figural objects fell victim to Christian and Western innovations, and many of the utensils used for curing the sick were eventually replaced by Western medicine. The datu increasingly lost influence as custodians of the beliefs, history, and traditions of their society. Frequent commissions for the artistic design of house façades to fend off disaster decreased in direct proportion to the Batak giving up their traditional architectural styles. The spread of Christianity destroyed the foundations of the old Batak religion, making the further production of cult objects superfluous. Christianization had advanced so much in just a few generations that researchers and travelers in the 1920s and 1930s already had difficulty obtaining authentic information about precolonial tra­ditions and practices during their trips to Batakland. For the datu, this process meant the loss of their once highly regarded position in society.

Today, the lifestyle of the Batak can hardly be distinguished from that of their neighbors. Industrially manufactured products from Australia, Asia, and Europe have displaced the traditional objects of daily life. The specialized knowledge of brass casting and wood carving has largely disappeared as a consequence. Only certain forms of jewelry, along with a broad range of woven textiles, have survived. Today the numerous products of modern tourist art as well as the proliferation of blatant fakes have come to play an increasingly important role in the local marketplace. At the same time, objects preserved in museum collections since the beginning of the 20th century are only very rarely recognized by young Batak as a part of their own culture, because knowledge about their original functions and their cultural meaning is no longer passed down from generation to generation.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Batak of Sumatra," 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), 61-65.

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