In Focus

Shield (balulang)

The peoples of Indonesia traditionally made shields in a wide variety of shapes, usually elongated, and quite different from European examples. Shields of the more remote cultures of the Indonesian islands were popular items of collection by Europeans during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some shields were used in warfare or raids, while others, more decorative, were intended for display in mock combat or in war dances.

This buffalo-hide shield (balulang) is so beautifully painted that it must have been used for ceremonial purposes rather than for actual warfare, no doubt as part of the costume worn by performers of the pa'randing warriors' dance that serves as a mark of status at high-ranking funerals. It glows with rich red and yellow ochre, balanced by charcoal black and lime white. These four elemental colors, which in the traditional Toraja worldview have cosmic associations with the cardinal points, are the same ones used in house carvings. White and yellow are associated with the north and east, the directions of the creator god Puang Matua and the deities and with the life-enhancing Rites of the East. The colors red and black, on the other hand, are associated with the ancestors, whose directions are the south and west, and they are the colors used in the mortuary Rites of the West. Here, they combine to create a vibrant harmony, adding to the sense of motion conveyed by the figures in the scenes depicted in the shield's four horizontal panels.

The upper edge of the shield is bordered by a row of large white circles on red, representing the thick shell disks (mata kara) that used to be sewn onto war jackets as a form of armor or attached to shields. The broad uppermost panel contains two sunbursts (pa'barre allo), animating the shield with an impression of fierce, hypnotically glaring eyes. They are separated by a panel of yellow containing a vertical row of black roosters (with prominent combs) and hens. Both these motifs are associated with the heavens. A sunburst surmounted by a cock is the design almost universally seen in the upper triangle of the façade of carved origin houses, the tongkonan.

Below are three horizontal panels filled with figures on contrasting backgrounds of red, white, and yellow. In the first, three horsemen, riding bareback, take orders from their leader, painted all in yellow and wearing a curious semicircular hat. He is accompanied by a small yellow dog. Dogs were formerly taken along on war parties to help sniff out the enemy. Next comes a row of warriors, their bent knees lending the impression that they are dancing, or at least in motion. They all carry swords at their waists and are accompanied by three dogs, one of whom breaks the frame as he jumps up. The first two warriors are armed with spears decorated with fringes of human hair or horsehair to make them look more frightening, while their companions carry rifles over their shoulders. Their long hair is bound up on top of their heads in warriors' topknots (patondon).

In the bottom panel is a ritual scene, suggestive of funeral sacrifice: two men lead buffalo with fine large horns; the central figure wears a pair of buffalo horns, with his hair knot sticking up in the middle like an extra horn. The second buffalo appears to have an egret on its back, an everyday detail more commonly observed in the fields than at a ceremony because buffalo will sometimes allow these birds to land on their backs and rid them of ticks. Its appearance here is something of a puzzle, although warriors used to wear an egret's wing in their headdresses as a mark of bravery, and men still wear them when performing the songs of the ma'bua' feast (manimbong). Alongside the buffalo marches a procession of three pigs, a curious-looking creature with a long snout and tail, and a dog.

The shield's imagery has a strongly narrative quality that suggests it might even record some real events, the details of which are no longer recoverable. On the other hand, it may simply be the product of the artist's lively imagination. In any case, this shield certainly reflects the warlike environment in which most Toraja communities found themselves in the closing decades of the 19th century, which was a violent and troubled time in the Toraja highlands.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "Shield (balulang)," 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), 180-181.