Times & Places
Sumba, once called Sandalwood Island, lies to the southeast of Sumbawa and southwest of Flores. Its population of six hundred thousand is primarily Christian, though a sizable but diminishing percentage continue to follow traditional religious practices (marapu) and adat law. Its natural resources are limited, and topography and weather have created a landscape of stark contrasts. Rain is more abundant in the west, which is forested and mountainous. The east is far drier, and grassy savannahs and rolling hills once covered with sandalwood are home to herds of cattle and horses but are agriculturally far less productive.
The people of West Sumba are more diverse than are their eastern neighbors. Ten language groups are recognized. In contrast, a single language, Kambera, is spoken in East Sumba. However, the arts of East Sumba are more varied than those to the west. This generalization is especially true with respect to textiles. A single style of ikat textile serves the needs of the nobility in the west, while an array of figurative ikat blankets and ceremonial sarong produced for both male and female members of the nobility are woven in the east. These textiles have been internationally acclaimed and collected since the late 19th century, and modern demand from collectors, tourists, and museums has resulted in increased production, but uneven quality. Beautiful gold and silver jewelry is found in both the west and east.
The arts of the indigenous peoples of Sumba and Flores were shaped by thousands of years of internal and external influences, but most existing works can be dated only to the late 19th and 20th centuries. It might be tempting to say that artworks present in the early 20th century are mirror images of those created hundreds of years earlier. We know, however, that this is not the case. Foreign influences and intervention certainly hastened the demise of arts tied directly to traditional religion, but for a limited period of time, the production and diversity of jewelry and textiles were actually energized and increased by the economic stimulus that followed, particularly among the wealthiest strata of local cultures, the nobility. The breakdown of adat law that had dictated the production of Sumbanese and Florenese arts, as well as the continuing growth of Islam and Christianity, have severely compromised the need for these art forms in traditional contexts as well as their function and use.
Nevertheless, some artists—especially weavers—continue to serve limited local demand with exceptional textiles while also working for an international clientele. Their special talents and creativity have also led to new art forms, based on traditional styles, but demonstrating departures and innovations that are very exciting and promising. Beautiful jewelry is also produced, including excellent fakes, reproductions, and new styles.
Today, the impressive stone tombs of Sumba are tourist destinations. These continue to be commissioned, but cost has resulted in many being constructed in concrete. Stone sculpture is not common. Traditionally, freestanding works sometimes embellished tombs, while others were placed at particular shrines. Figural woodcarving is rare, but game boards, musical instruments, and other utilitarian items were sometimes decorated, particularly in West Sumba.
George Ellis, "The Art of East Nusa Tenggara: Sumba and Flores," 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), 209-213.