In Focus

House door (oromatan)

The great communal houses of Indonesia's traditional peoples reflect man's place in a tripartite cosmos, where humans live in the middle world, on earth, between heaven and the underworld. Notions of duality, portents of cardinal directions, and the dictates of the first ancestors are honored in these often elaborate buildings that are in many ways a microcosm of each group's belief system. Often the houses of aristocratic clans were beautifully embellished with carvings and painted designs. Among the Tetun of Belu, houses are notable for their interesting altars, carved panels, and, above all, beautifully carved doors.

While male and female symbols are complementary to each other in Tetun houses, the dwelling is a decidedly female place. Piet Middelkoop wrote that the term matsau ume nanan describes the oldest form of marriage in Timor and can be translated as "the marriage (of entering into) the interior of the house." That means that a husband stays within the house of his in-laws, and thus participates in the family magic (nono) of his wife. [1] Great houses are often described as being "living" things, and as such, various areas of the building are often named after parts of the human body. [2] Thus, among the Tetun, who practice matrilineal descent, the largest room in the rear of the dwelling is known as "the womb of the house" (uma ulon). [3] Here, one finds the house's hearth, its ritual pillar, and the women's entryway, which is known as the house's vagina. [4]

Conversely, the door used solely by postpubescent boys and men is found at the front or "face" of the house and is referred to as "the eye of the house."[5] As thresholds, both doorways mark the boundary between the inner, mostly female, world of the house and a predominantly male outer world. These portals are complementary entryways that connect the Tetun to "the steps that lead to the source of life."[6] In a ritual that was once common but is now rarely performed, a baby's first exposure to the outer world occurs when the father carries the child through the vaginal door to the village plaza.

Most doors are decorated solely with tightly patterned geometric designs. Others singularly depict or combine raised carvings of breasts, animals, or ceremonial jewelry, while only a few sets of doors actually depict male and female figures. Usually a figurative door consists of a single effigy with a long angular frame or a half-bodied torso. Conceptualized here in a slightly different manner, this female figure is expansive, rotund, and with her oversized breasts appears to address aspects of reproductive power—and the connectedness of many generations of women—compressed into the body of one archetypal female figure. [7] Framing her likeness is a series of meandering key- and diamond-shaped geometric patterns whose optical effects draw further attention to her fecund form. This door, said to have been the work of a master carver named Alfonsius Seran, comes from the village of Dirun. [8] Other related doors can be found in the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden [9] and at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. [10]

[1] Piet Middelkoop, "Four Tales with Mythical Features Characteristic of the Timorese People," Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde 114 (1958): 384-405.

[2] Roxana Waterson, The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia (Singapore and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 129.

[3] David Hicks, A Maternal Religion: The Role of Women in Tetum Myth and Ritual. Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Report No. 22, 1984, 38-49.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Roxana Waterson, The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia (Singapore and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 130.

[6] David Hicks, "Art and Religion on Timor," in Islands and Ancestors: Indigenous Styles of Southeast Asia, ed. Jean Paul Barbier and Douglas Newton, 138-49: 147.

[7] Our preoccupation with fertility is reflected in the oldest images created by humankind, the so-called Venus figures. The oldest of these from the Upper Paleolithic Period is the Venus of Hohle Fels, which has been dated to 35,000 to 40,000 years old.

[8] Personal communication: Goh Tjin Liong, 2011.

[9] Accession no. 2380-268.

[10] Accession nos. 70.2001.27.487 and 70.2001.27.530.

Excerpt from

  • Steven G. Alpert, "House door (oromatan)," 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), 258.