Cultures & Traditions

Wooden Sculpture of the Ono Niha

The ancestor and protective figures made of wood, which can readily be distinguished from the sculptures of many other Indonesian ethnicities, are of special importance in the art of Nias. There are numerous stylistic differences in the woodcarvings of North, Central, and South Nias, but also just as many features that can be described as typical of the island as a whole. For instance, the figures are mostly nude or have a piece of cloth wrapped around the hips. Their gender is usually very clear. They wear traditional jewelry, whose distinctive forms are not common in other regions of Indonesia. These include high-pointed gold crowns (tuwu), long pendant earrings (si’alu), bracelets ( töla gasa), and a splendid necklace (kalabubu). Depending on their intended purpose, these figurative sculp­tures range between eight and eighty inches in height; a few are even taller. In the past, large numbers of wooden figures were kept in the house in specified places. According to Andrew Beatty, “The missionary Noll (1930) claims that he once removed over two thousand ‘idols’ from a house of a Christian convert in the north. Kramer (1890) saw houses collapse under their weight.”[1]

Aside from the ancestor figures, which were supposed to ensure fertility for the family, livestock, and fields, a large number of various protective figures were also produced. With the help of these adu figures, the Ono Niha could heal every sort of illness—one individual adu for each illness. Depending on their special purpose, these adu fig­ures varied in size, form, material, and in style. This variation could be said to reflect “the social status and wealth of the dead person whom the figure represents, or the person for whom it is desig­nated. Finally, the individual images indicate the specific nature of a carver’s individual aesthetics.”[2] Of course the aesthetic quality of a wooden sculpture also very much depended on the artistic capa­bilities of the carver. Professional carvers who regularly produced sculptures for various customers ultimately gained a higher level of aesthetic skill than those who occasionally carved figures for their personal use. But for the Ono Niha, an effective religious sculp­ture did not necessarily need to be beautifully carved. Its intended purpose as a protective figure was always more important than its aesthetic qualities.

The large ancestor figures from North Nias (adu siraha salawa) and those from Central and South Nias (adu zatua) were cared for and propitiated most devoutly. They received regular sacrificial offerings and a place of honor on the right wall of the front com­munal room. This placement on the right wall of the front communal room is to the viewer’s right, observed when one is facing the front veranda from the interior of the house. Often a wall panel with a carved altar platform was found here (daro-daro ndra ama), on which the ancestor figure stood, sometimes being inserted into it with a peg. Other figures stood on beams, hung from the timberwork of the roof, or stood on the floor in groups, in front of the left wall.

The art of woodcarving was more richly varied in Central Nias, but more widespread in the north. In addition to figures that were worked relatively superficially and fleetingly—frequently carved as protective figures against illnesses or as ancestral portraits of less important persons—many sculptures are now recognized as impressive works of art because of their modes of representation, styles, surface designs, and expressiveness. Every region of Nias is characterized by special stylistic features according to which sculptures can be locally attributed. Sculptures in a squatting pos­ture in South Nias hold a cup or a betel nut cracker in their hands resting on their knees. In the north, such a figure holds a cup in both hands in front of its chest. Sculptural representations of dual gender (hermaphroditic sculptures) were carved only in Central Nias. Moreover, the figures in Central Nias are mostly represented standing, not sitting as in the south and the north.

The more abstract representations are from Central Nias; the rather natural­istically designed sculptures are from the south. While some have a relaxed, closed posture, other standing figures are represented with outstretched or raised arms. There are ancestor figures without arms, primarily in the south and on the Batu Islands. Sculptures, adu hörö, that wear a high, forklike headdress, come chiefly from Central Nias, but also sometimes from South Nias. Here, too, the arms are missing and the body is reduced to what is most essential. The body is usually very flat and boardlike, although there are also three-dimensional adu hörö. Unfortunately, to this day, there is still not a comprehensive description of the iconographic features in the various arts and stylistic regions of Nias.

[1] Beatty 1992: 19.

[2] Pospísilová, Hladká, and Jezberová 2010: 41.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Ono Niha," 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), 43-47.