In Focus

Headdress ornament with a human face

On the island of Luang—notwithstanding the introduction of the Panca Sila, the Indonesian state philosophy upholding democracy and justice—a traditional caste system endures. Historically, three classes existed on the islands: a noble elite, which produced the chiefs; a large middle class; and a caste of slaves. Though less pro­nounced, this social stratification is still very much alive today, particularly in matters concerning marriage. Large fines are meant to keep the nobility (marna) from mixing with the former slaves.

Traditionally, members of a caste were recognizable by their attire, principally the length and decoration of the female sarong and male loincloth. Furthermore, rules governed the wearing of jewelry. Slaves, for instance, were not allowed to adorn themselves at all.

Among the most imposing adornments for marna women were golden headdresses such as the one shown here. This type of jewelry, called wutulai in the local language, was quite rare on the islands. By around 1990 these ornaments had—as far as we know—disappeared from Maluku Tenggara altogether. Fortunately a number of them have been well documented, which has provided us with a fairly accurate picture of their traditional appearance.

The design of the majority of the headdresses was, as in the Dallas example, composed around a heart-shaped, human face. Often this face was depicted in a clearly representational manner, with a sharp nose, pronounced eyebrows, and large ears (which in this case have been lost). Other headdresses depicted a pair of iden­tical roosters confronting each other. In some cases, the roosters were clearly discernible, with or without the face-based motif, but in others they were a barely recognizable part of a highly stylized design.

Regrettably, no information remains on the islands regarding the meaning of the patterns that were used, and relevant com­ments are also lacking in the existing literature. It appears, though, that we can interpret these patterns using other evidence. In this respect, the carved statues of the founding mothers (luli) of the local matrilineal descent groups are invaluable. The design of these luli figures is deter­mined by a combination of two motifs: a boat and a tree. The latter is usually more dominant and unequivocal: fertility is key.

Upon studying the face-based headdresses in more detail, we observe a prominent role for floral patterns. Every design of this group ends in “branches” or “shoots,” on which small, shiny hangers (attached to small metal loops) often appear to represent hanging leaves. Also, the decoration explicitly reveals a floral theme: many of the shoots of the ornaments have been decorated as though they were part of luli statues. The Dallas Museum of Art headdress provides a magnifi­cent example. On the central stake is a relief decoration made up of a symmetrically constructed tree that has its roots in a boat with prows that curve strongly inward. Again, the predominant theme is fertility.

A second remarkable similarity exists between these head­dresses and luli statues. As mentioned, in order to enhance its symbolic message, the founding mother herself is regularly portrayed on the luli as part of the tree motif. This theme is also expressed in the wutulai: the “shoots” appear to grow from the human head, which is the basis of the headdress. A face-based wutulai, like a luli statue, thus probably represented a founding mother. By wearing a headdress (and identifying herself with the founding mother), a woman could present herself as a unique source of fertility.

Excerpt from

Nico de Jonge, "Headdress ornament with a human face," 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), 301.