In Focus

Female protective figure (pagar)

This female protective figure was most likely created by the same expert woodcarver who—according to its former owner—made the male figure. The features, body proportions, posture, shape of the legs, absence of feet, sexual characteristics that are only hinted at, and the treatment of the surface all correspond to the Dallas male figure (1995.33.McD). These parallels are certainly the reason some scholars believe that the two figures must have been representa­tions of an ancestor couple, or debata idup. Several aspects contradict this interpretation, however. The debata idup are normally rep­resented with their arms against their sides and in a closed-leg posture. Their hands emphasize either their bellies or their geni­tals. Unlike protective figures, which are intended to repel harm and misfortune through the posture of their hands and arms, the debata idup figures serve to protect the continued existence of the family. They may be ritually deployed in cases of the absence of off­spring, for example, to promote the fertility of a man and woman.

Compared to the slightly taller male figure, the head of this sculpture is a little broader and the eyebrows are emphasized more strongly. As a result, the eyes seem to be cut more deeply. The ears are also different in their design. They hardly show an inte­rior structure and are unadorned by jewelry or ornamentation. The outstretched forearms of the figure with their gigantic hands are inserted into the side openings of the closed upper arms, each by a wooden peg. The forearms and palms point to the front. The fingers are close together, the thumbs not differentiated or rendered natu­ralistically, but the same length as the other fingers. The breasts lie flat on the body. The hips of this figure are considerably broader than those of the male figure so that the hips and leg joints are typically feminine. The vulva is merely suggested through light incisions.

The backs of both figures are angularly formed. Observed from the side, a curved line leads from the head and back to the horizon­tally sharp-edged, somewhat abstracted buttocks. Compared to the male figure, the legs of this figure are a little longer in relation to the upper body.

In both figures, we observe an aesthetic interplay between angularly shaped outer limbs and round, fully three-dimensional heads and upper bodies. The slightly bent legs and the curved backs enhance the physical balance of the figures; they are in fact remi­niscent of the monumental style of stone or wooden figures that were produced primarily for ancestor cults by many Indonesian ethnic groups.

The smooth surfaces with their gleaming patinas give both fig­ures a remarkable brilliance. In comparison, the surfaces on the majority of Batak sculptures tend to be dull and encrusted. The patina on this pair resembles that of the finest, most well-handled staffs.

Excerpt from

Achim Sibeth, "Female protective figure (pagar)," 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), 78.