Cultures & Traditions

Founding Mothers in Southeast Moluccan Art

The most impressive statues of founding mothers were found in the western part of Maluku Tenggara. On islands such as Luang, Sermata, Leti, Lakor, and Kisar, so-called luli (a word meaning “sacred”) represented the female founders of noble matrilineal families. Because of their extraordinary decoration and expres­sive design they are celebrated among the masterworks of Southeast Moluccan art.

Interestingly, luli, which traditionally stood in special sanctuar­ies, were designed in a variety of different and creative ways. The female figure could be depicted realistically, with some characteris­tic decorative motifs, or it could be completely dominated by these motifs to such an extent that the female figure became abstracted and was barely recognizable, if at all. Moreover, all sorts of transi­tional forms were found between these two extremes. Surprisingly, however, this multitude of appearances reveals the founding mother’s essence. Comparison of the most important luli categories suggests that she was associated above all with a life-giving force.

When a founding mother is depicted realistically, she gener­ally holds her arms raised and sideways. Usually, there are decorations on fixed parts of her body. Often her stomach or abdomen is decorated with a highly stylized boat motif, fitted with prow and stern posts curling powerfully inward. The upper body (for example, the shoulders and the head) is often decorated with floral motifs. Sometimes the upper body and the surround­ing foliage even seem to have become indistinguishable from each other.

The decorations can be explained by examining the abstract luli . There, the female figure is only implied, whereas the boat motif and the vegetation—as elements of a combined decorative pattern—are much more prominent. From the middle of the stylized boat, a tree­like pole (sometimes with “leaves”) rises—a preeminent symbol of fertility on most islands. The tree—often symmetrically carved— represents new life, with the boat representing the source of life. In this interpretation, the boat is essentially compared to the womb, an association that also explains the positioning of this motif on the realistic luli, namely, on the abdomen.

The position of the arms in the realistic luli is as remarkable as it is intriguing. To interpret this positioning, the “mixed luli forms” are especially important. Quite often, these show a boat motif from which the founding mother, sometimes as part of a floral motif, is rising. The female figure is thus part of the motif as found on abstract luli and splendidly represents new, burgeoning life. We may assume that the arms of a realistic luli refer to the same pat­tern. These raised arms, stretching out sideways, can be understood as the shape of a boat from which the founding mother emerges. This might also explain the great emphasis on the upper part of the body at the expense of the legs. Whatever the design of the luli, the symbolism is evident; through the association of the boat with a womb, the founding mother represented a sacred source of fertility.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Life and Death in Southeast Moluccan Art," 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), 275-281.