In Focus

Standing Guardian Sentinel

In contrast to ancestor figures (debata idup), guardian sentinels were provided with a magically effective ingredient (pupuk), which was inserted into square or rectangular cavities in the chest or liver areas. These cavities were closed with a covering made of wood or metal, which was glued or nailed to them. In many cases, a dol­lop of tree resin served the purpose, or an angular wooden peg was used, from which a piece jutted out. The offering of food and bever­age sacrifices was thought to assure the lasting efficacy and power of these sculptures.

This figure has a cord attached to its legs made of fibrous material (ijuk) from the sugar palm, to which a spoon used for feeding the sculpture is tied. Traces of abrasion to the mouth and chest gradually resulted from this ritual feeding and show that the figure enjoyed great attention and esteem over a long period of time.

A clapper was attached to the wooden peg on some guardian figures, from which warning signals could be sounded by striking it against the thighs. This type of guardian figure often hung upside down somewhere in the house. In general, guardian sentinels share certain features in common with the protective figures called pagar (the literal meaning of which, in English, is “fence”).

This standing figure—probably male—has a direct, frontal gaze. The eyes are wide open and feature inserted pupils fashioned from buffalo horn. The skull is covered with a long-haired, black horse mane or hide. A wooden peg seals an opening for the magically effec­tive pupuk in the region of the temple over the right ear. Another wooden peg is embedded in the left abdominal area. The large ears are shaped as spirals; the earlobes have been pierced for the attaching of jewelry. It is possible that the figure wore such jewelry only for ceremonies.

In the head, upper body, and legs, this sculpture exhibits proportions typical of the art of the Batak. The upper body is cylin­drically round; the bent arms pressed against the body are fully differentiated from it. The hands show substantial traces of wear. A grayish-brown hip cloth covers the lower body and legs. In the past, many guardian and protective figures were dressed in this way. However, these garments have often been damaged or lost; in these cases, figures often display considerably lighter areas of the body that were originally clothed. In the case of the Dallas figure, the hip cloth seems to be original. The base area, which indicates the feet, was drilled through at the side to attach the spoon with an ijuk cord. The back of the figure is not angular, but instead is carved naturalistically. The fact that the hair is still to a large extent intact is especially gratifying. In most of the objects that have been adorned with or produced from leather and hair, much of the hair has been lost due to damage from mites.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Guardian sentinel," 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), 67.