Cultures & Traditions

Art in Traditional Indonesian Cultures

It was not so long ago that the supposed superiority of Western art over non-Western indigenous artistic creations was taken for granted. “Their woodcarvings are very elementary and the resulting objects are like caricatures, per se skilfully executed, but not done with the intention to create a caricature.” [1] Such was a government physician’s impression, as late as 1947, of the art of the people of the Mentawai Islands west of Sumatra, a region where he had been stationed shortly before the World War II.

As a result of a sudden reappraisal inspired by European artists' captivation with the traditional art of Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of studies of “primitive” artistic traditions were published, some of them more general, some focused on a specific locality. Anthropologists began to study how these intriguing artworks related to religion and the specific social context, as well as what it was that motivated the artists who fashioned them. It soon became apparent in the relevant publications that, in contrast to the Western conception of “l’art pour l’art,” the art of indigenous peoples was usually functional, in most cases in a religious sense. In local languages, generally no distinction was made between arts and crafts, no special role being known for a professional artist. People were nonethe­less well aware of the aesthetic merits of individual works of art.

Initially, the art of Indonesia was largely ignored, overshad­owed by that of its New Guinean neighbors. Expressionist and Surrealist painters of the early twentieth century were especially fascinated by highly emotional and expressive arti­facts from that region. Interest in the art of the Indonesian archipelago itself at that time centered on the clas­sical heritage of the Hindu-Javanese period. The first monographs on Indonesian art appeared only in the second half of the twentieth century. They were often related to museum exhibitions and, like them, documented a growing fas­cination with the traditional artistic heritage of the newly independent (since 1945) Republic of Indonesia.

After independence, however, a certain ambivalence soon became evident in the official government stance regarding local artistic tra­ditions. The great variety of characteristic forms that was so admired internationally was a clear expression of regional identities within Indonesia, and certain localities were motivated to promote their own traditional artistic forms as a way of distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. To the new authorities, intent on forging a transregional national identity, such local distinctions were unwel­come. In many places, any expression of regional cultural traditions was deemed “irrelevant” and officially banned.

Beginning in 1998, however, following the resignation of President Suharto, successor to founding president Sukarno, the ban ceased to be upheld. Today greater regional autonomy gives the various provinces the political space in which to cultivate and further develop what distinguishes them. Traditional cultures—especially as expressed in dances and clothing, which also serve to attract tourists—are experiencing a revival and have reaffirmed regional identities. A review of the historical background of the archipelago’s cultures makes it clear that their wealth of local traditions is by no means in conflict with the notion of national unity.

As a result of missionary proselytizing, colonial rule, and the revo­lutionary struggle for “nation building,” the majority of Indonesia’s indigenous artistic traditions are features of the past. A few exceptions serve only to prove the rule. In most cases, the cultural connotations inspiring such works of art have been forgotten. Unfortunately, this means that a number of issues that have only recently received the appropriate atten­tion among anthropologists and art historians can no longer be properly investigated. For example, far too little is known about individual artists and their personalities, and still less about the aesthetic criteria by which their works were judged. From various testimonies, we know that differences in quality were recognized, and there was general agreement about which works were most deserving of praise.

Today surviving works of traditional Indonesian art are highly esteemed in the West, as evidenced by the increasingly high prices paid for them. In order to meet this demand, craftsmen are now producing either faithful copies or pieces mimicking traditional styles that—in contrast to more innocuous “airport art,” which profits from the same interest—are often artificially aged with considerable skill but are simply counterfeits. The fact that a high-priced and obviously cleverly reproduced artifact not only ceases to be marketable once it is revealed to be a modern creation but suddenly becomes worth little more than the wood that it is made of attests to the general mind-set of potential buyers. Frequently such fakes are not even made by members of the cultures in question. In Bali numerous galleries offer supposedly antique native works in any style that customers request that are in fact new fabrications produced in the courtyard out back.

Yet such developments can have a positive side as well. Among the airport art, and even in antique shops, one often finds artifacts that cannot simply be dismissed as routine copies but that in fact expand upon the traditional repertoire of artistic forms. The creators of such objects are clearly motivated to further develop what has been passed down to them. To increase their market value, dealers frequently give them an artificial patina and offer them as authentic traditional pieces. When they are successful, there is the danger that researchers might mistake such innovations for elements of the traditional stylistic canon. But in themselves, such innovations reflect a lively degree of creativity, even though it is motivated by commercial considerations instead of traditional religious beliefs.

There is also a political aspect to the continuing focus on inher­ited forms and artistic traditions. In our era of globalization, it happens that educated young people are increasingly impelled to learn more about the cultural heritage on which their ethnic iden­tity is based. One sign of this growing fascination is the unexpected revival of tattooing in many places after years of prohibition. And again and again, one is struck by the eagerness with which young people study published illustrations in their search for older, often forgotten evidence of their cultural roots. By preserving such testi­mony, museums can play an important role, serving as repositories in which the descendants of cultures and Westerners with similar interests come together.

Needless to say, there are also artists among the descendants of earlier traditional cultures who are no longer working within the tradi­tional formal canon but going in wholly new directions, considering themselves part of the contemporary international art scene. At most, they may take inspiration from the ancient motifs, but they by no means think of the traditional anthropological museum as the appropriate repository for their art.

[1] Van Beukering 1947: 51. This judgment is like a late echo of the general Western view of traditional non-Western art in the nineteenth century when the motto natura artis magistra (nature is art’s teacher) still was taken as dogma, and any figural representation was judged according to how closely it resembled the original—within the limits of the particular contemporary style. “The lack of correct perception and reproduction is hidden . . . behind a fantastical-conventional stylisation . . . ” is the derogatory judgment in one of the first general works in art history that gave the “art of primitive peoples” a section of its own (Woermann 1915: 18). Even at that time, anthropology examined artistic expres­sion in material culture, but this attention focused one-sidedly on the historical evolution of art forms or their geographical distribution.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," 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), 17-27.