Altar depicting the first female ancestor (luli)
In an 1892 publication, the Dutch missionary N. Rinnooy writes about his exploration of a pagan "sanctuary" on the small island of Kisar. The rectangular construction had an attic room, which was accessed by climbing a steep staircase and opening a hatch that divided the room in two. "The front section of the attic," according to Rinnooy, "is the place of the gods. At the front, on the floor, is a woman, carved from wood, of which the head and torso, in comparison to the legs that can hardly be seen, are very large. She has a bowl of food in front of her....The woman is the deity, to whom is accorded the highest honor, while proliferation of goods and family is expected of her."
Rinnooy's report is the first publication to contain a description of a so-called luli, the statue of a "holy" founding mother of a noble, matrilineal descent group (Rinnooy erroneously calls it a deity). Up until the start of the 20th century, luli figures were made in western Maluku Tenggara and were—as Rinnooy describes it—revered as an ultimate source of fertility. Due to their relative rarity, only a few of these remarkable statues have found their way into museum collections. Because of its distinctive appearance and excellent quality, this luli can therefore be regarded as an unique example.
It is possible to classify these statues into several basic categories, according to their design and decorations. In one aspect, such a statue may clearly represent a woman, often decorated with boat and tree motifs. On the other hand, the luli could be completely dominated by these symbolic motifs, showing very little of a recognizable figural form. In the latter case, a treelike stake rises up from a highly stylized boat, a composite pattern of containing the most important symbol of fertility on the islands. The tree represents new life, while the boat—referring to a womb, by means of the prows that curve strongly inward—represents the source of life. A third category consists of statues that can be regarded as a combination of both realistic and abstract designs.
In terms of creativity and aesthetic appeal, the third category is particularly fascinating. Several luli that fall into this category show the female first ancestor herself rising from the boat/womb motif. This makes the female figure a part of the pattern, as can be observed in abstract luli, and it represents the burgeoning of new life in a beautiful way. The Dallas Museum of Art luli is a variation on this theme: it shows the female first ancestor on top of the boat/womb motif, very much like a rising tree. The image is reinforced by repetition: the arms, which are stretch out to the sides, form the shape of a boat as well, from which the founding mother rises up. It makes sense that the legs and lower body are minimal, as in the statue that Rinnooy encountered on Kisar at the end of the 19th century; from a symbolic perspective, they do not, in fact, matter.
Probably this founding mother would originally have had one or more valuable adornments. Many luli statues, for example, have a decorative comb or ornament on their heads, which may once have been the case here as well. Although it was the men who would defend the prestige of a descent group by gathering precious objects from the outside world, it was the women who would, especially at festivities, show off these items. The founding mother and her descendants would play the leading part in these events: as representatives of the group they could wear the most beautiful jewelry.
The issue of status was most likely also reflected in the case of the rather large, ajour-cut ear pendant at the bottom of the statue. Items of this type were usually depicted to emphasize the "great name" of a group. The jewel would most likely have had its own name, connected to a mythical origin, or to the important ancestors who had acquired it. The little dots on the founding mother's chest and arms probably did not represent jewelry, but rather tattoos.
One of the most remarkable things about this founding mother statue is the fact that it has been cut from a single block of wood. Almost all luli have a pedestal; usually however, the founding mother statue and the pedestal are separate units. The decorations that have been applied here are familiar, though. On Leti in particular—where many a pedestal was made up of multiple pieces—these were given extra attention; the founding mother would be protected by ajour-cut animal figures, which closely resemble the clan emblems of eastern Maluku Tenggara. In fact, the pedestal of the Dallas luli was also originally made up of several parts: holes on the left and right sides betray the former presence of extensions that would have been secured from the front with wooded pegs.
As Rinnooy points out, the founding mother would traditionally receive her offerings in a special sanctuary. Usually a sacrificial bowl filled with sirih-pinang would be placed on the pedestal. At the start of the 20th century, however, these practices changed irrevocably. Descent groups that had up until then lived solitarily merged with larger village communities, and the luli statues moved to family dwellings. Not long after, may would fall victim to zealous Christian clerics.
 Rinnooy 1892: 74. This quote has been translated from Dutch into English.
Nico de Jonge, "Altar depicting the first female ancestor (luli)," 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), 302-303.