In Focus

Wall panel with figure of a slain shaman (tulangan sirimanua)

This panel with the relief of a human figure (tulangan sirimanua) comes from a deserted longhouse (uma) of the Siriottoi clan in Taileleu in the southern part of Siberut. It was acquired in 1967 from the son—then about sixty years old—of the headhunter who had made it upon returning from the successful raid that crowned the inauguration of his clan’s new house. Such a figure served as a memorial and increased the renown of an uma; it had no special religious function. The person depicted on the panel bears the tat­too patterns of northern Siberut, the region where the Taileleu people traditionally went headhunting. The panel was inserted into the rear wall of the first interior room next to a second figure (the second victim of the raid). In 1967, however, this room was nearly destroyed by termites, as were most other parts of the uma. The painting of a feather decoration above the head identifies the figure as the portrait of a kerei, a shaman.

The two figures were the last ones still in situ in Taileleu. Three or four other examples from neighboring uma had been taken out of the decaying houses, together with some other planks that were well preserved, and brought to the governmentally enforced mod­ern village to serve as material for the construction of new housing. When they returned to the old Siriottoi longhouse, children played at headhunting by throwing pieces of clay at the figures. Their parents had taken pride in the figures that manifested the former courage and vigor of the clan. Now that the house had been relinquished and set to ruin, and memories had faded, they did not especially care whether these figures became detached from the dwelling or not.

On the wall panel, negative space has been hewn from a thick plank to reveal a nearly life-size image of a standing shaman. His head is small, but the shell inlay that survives in his right eye con­veys a piercing gaze. The splayed hands are enormous, enhancing the monumental quality of the figure. The lines representing the tattoos indicate the local origin of the depicted person; indeed, after purchasing the panel, the collector was warned not to show the piece to people from northern Siberut since this could still provoke a hostile reaction. The loincloth was added when the fig­ure was sold in 1967, as a replacement for the original, which had not been preserved.

In both the scientific literature and in museum collections, wall panels such as these are decorated with relief figures of animals, but generally not with those of humans. This is one of a very small number of panels with human figures that has survived.

Excerpt from

Reimar Schefold, "Wall panel with figure of a slain shaman (tulangan sirimanua)," 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), 38-39.