Cultures & Traditions

The Art of the Southeast Moluccas

Between New Guinea and Timor, spread throughout the Banda Sea, lie the islands of Maluku Tenggara, also known as the Southeast Moluccas. For the most part the area is made up of uplifted coral islands—small and barren in the west, somewhat larger and more wooded in the east—where the standard of living is low. On some of the islands famine occurs regularly due to infertile soil and a shortage of rainwater.

Despite their challenging environment, the inhabitants of Maluku Tenggara have produced works of art of impressive beauty and profound meaning. Consequently, the ancestor statues of Leti and Tanimbar, as well as the jewelry and fabrics of Kisar and Tanimbar, have been highly desired by collectors for many years.

Regrettably, the production of most of these objects ceased nearly a century ago. This resulted primarily from the increasing influence of the Dutch colonizers at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the related efforts of Christian missionaries. In areas prone to constant fighting, the Dutch relocated remote vil­lages situated like eyries on cliff tops to coastal places that were easier to control.

As a result of colonial and Christianizing inroads, the ancient customs and habits known as adat—together with the indigenous religions—came under immense pressure. The islands where Prot­estant missionaries were active were hardest hit. With the tacit and sometimes active backing of the colonial administration, the mostly Amboinese clerics trained by the missionaries converted the island inhabitants in an often coercive way, forcing them, among other things, to abandon their “open idolatry.” Many statues of gods and ancestors were thrown into the sea or ostentatiously burnt. On the island of Moa, such practices were men­tioned as early as 1892. The most recent example of ancestor statue burning known to this author occurred in 1981 during the celebration of Christmas in the Babar archipelago.

Because of these substantial losses, it might seem that the only information available for understanding the cultural context of traditional works of art from this region are colonial records and early Western sources. However, this is not entirely the case. In fact, when traveling around the islands, it quickly becomes apparent that a number of traditional cultural practices, particularly ancestor worship, are still very much alive. Traditional beliefs function, albeit adapted and without the original statues, side by side with Christianity and, to a lesser extent, with Islam. In addition, some traditional goldsmiths can still be found, and on some islands the art of weaving has been maintained. Moreover, in many places, one comes across remnants of a form of nautical symbolism that was important in pre-Christian times. This symbolism dominated the former island cultures to a large extent and found its expression in various kinds of art forms.

The most important social values of Maluku Tenggara were reflected in religious rituals and artifacts. Various supernatural powers were worshipped as sources of fertility and status. Without the gods and ancestors, traditional life was in fact impossible. In conjunction with such sacred sources, however, society itself also contained “suppliers” of fertility and strength: descent groups with whom marital relations were established. Even nowadays, this is still referred to through the ritual exchange of valuables.

On various islands, for example on Kai and Tanimbar, the adat traditionally obliges a man to look for a wife outside of his own group. Consequently, a family always depends on other groups for its survival. Usually these marriage alliances are one-sided: a bride may never be given to a group from whom a bride was once taken. Because of this, various groups have developed permanent wife-giver–wife-taker relationships, alliances that are repeatedly reaffirmed through the public exchange of ritual presents. At the beginning of the 20th century, people on Tanimbar endeavored to marry at least one son (preferably the eldest) to a daughter of the mother’s brother, so that there were permanent marriage alli­ances within the same descent groups. Of these, beautiful ikat fabrics and fascinating gold jewelry are the most prized; both categories of gift are symbolically important.

The ikat fabrics are meant for the wife-takers. The cloths are referred to as “cool” and symbolize the fertility that—through the bride—will “flow” from the wife-givers (and their female ancestors) to the wife-takers. The “coolness” derives from the nature of the materials: the fabrics are made of cotton, which is a product of the “feminine” earth. Conversely, the wife-givers often receive—as the major part of the bride price—“hot” golden jewelry, and these items convey a message as well. Though the fact is generally forgot­ten nowadays, on many islands these valuables are associated with slain enemies.

By offering these “headhunting trophies,” the wife-takers place their own capacity to kill, so to speak, at the service of the wife-givers: if aggression occurs, they (and their male ancestors) can be counted on for aid and protection. On many Moluccan islands, weapons used to be a part of the bride price as well, which of course contributed to the symbolism. Even today, wife-takers on Tanimbar have an obligation to help their wife-givers in cases of ngrije, a term now meaning “a matter,” but formerly also referring to war. In the northern Moluccas “armed” assistance by wife-takers is still common. At the same time, receiv­ing jewelry increased the social status of the wife-givers: their prestige—as the new owners of additional “hot” items—was given added weight within the community.

On many islands, the presenting of the bride price also involves the boat symbolism discussed earlier: during the ceremony, the valuable objects are traded for a symbolic proa, that is, the woman. On Tanimbar, for instance, gold and elephant tusks are given in exchange for the “mainsail” and the “rudder,” and on the Kai islands, a cannon and a gong are donated in exchange for the “keel” and the “oars.” In return, the wife-givers make sure “the boat is rigged up nicely,” which means the bride will be handed over to the wife-takers all dressed up and provided with a handsome trousseau.

With this understanding of ritual and symbolism, a whole new world is revealed when we consider the material culture of Maluku Tenggara. Society on all the islands revolved around fertility and status, with clear roles for men and women, and this was reflected in the traditional arts. All important objects—whether ancestor statues, gold jewelry, or fabrics—related directly to these values. The statues were part of an all-encompassing religious system that always informed traditional tasks. Through these sculptures, gods, spirits, and ancestors could be provided with offerings and properly supplicated. Jewelry and fabrics mostly played a role in a group’s social life. As gifts, they symbolized status and fertility, defining relations between individuals and families.

Even though their numbers have decreased, valuables of this type are still to this day being exchanged on numerous occasions (primarily rites of passage). The social roles of both men and women are symbolically highlighted by these exchanges, while at the same time they emphasize the mutual interdependence of the clans: only through cooperation will society endure. This raises the question of how long this practice can last. Increasingly, the islands of Maluku Tenggara are becoming part of modern Indonesia, and many traditions, such as the production of gold jewelry, are dying out or indeed have already disappeared. Like the statues of gods and ancestors, soon the textiles and jewelry that are visible sym­bols of the fertility and status they confer on society will also have disappeared from the villages.

With this understanding of ritual and symbolism, a whole new world is revealed when we consider the material culture of Maluku Tenggara. Society on all the islands revolved around fertility and status, with clear roles for men and women, and this was reflected in the traditional arts. All important objects—whether ancestor statues, gold jewelry, or fabrics—related directly to these values. The statues were part of an all-encompassing religious system that always informed traditional tasks. Through these sculptures, gods, spirits, and ancestors could be provided with offerings and properly supplicated. Jewelry and fabrics mostly played a role in a group’s social life. As gifts, they symbolized status and fertility, defining relations between individuals and families.

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, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 275-281.