Times & Places

Island Southeast Asia

The culture area called Island Southeast Asia occupies the western Pacific Ocean, south and east of the Asian mainland. The islands of Indonesia form the heartland of this area, but culture is often continuous across modern political boundaries, as it is on the island of Borneo, which Indonesia's Kalimantan provinces share with Malaysia's Sarawak and Sabah and the sultanate of Brunei. Stylistic similarities extend farther north, to the Philippine Islands and Taiwan, and also occur among certain mainland peoples of Vietnam and of the Naga Hills of northeastern India. The culture area as a whole has been called the Malay archipelago, Malaysia, Indonesia, in the broadest sense of those terms. Island Southeast Asia, which avoids the names of nations and acknowledges the long-term contact with the Asian mainland, is increasingly preferred.

The islands of the Indonesian archipelago extend for three thousand two hundred miles along the equator between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The tropical climate is hot and humid, with heavy rainfall year-round in the west, and marked wet-dry seasons in the east. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions show nature's capacity to destroy. Natural resources—spices, resins, and tropical hardwoods—formed the basis of early trade with China and India and attracted European explorers in the 16th century. Throughout the area, there are strong geographic and cultural contrasts between the coastal lowlands, inhabited by seafaring and trading peoples, and the interior highlands, where regional cultures flourish. Human life is intimately linked to the growing of rice, the principal staple, which is significant in belief and ritual. Water buffalo and pigs, symbols of wealth and status, are raised for ritual sacrifice.

Indonesia's location at the crossroads of ancient trade routes brought contact with foreign goods, weaving and metalworking technologies, and religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have each contributed to the area's cultural diversity, but the religious convictions of regional cultures are essentially animist. Deities are less significant in everyday life than the host of spirit forces that inhabit every aspect of nature. Foremost among these is the ancestral presence, which exemplifies the continuous interaction between the living and the dead. Man needs the guidance and protection of his ancestors, while the ancestors depend upon man to feed and honor them. Ancestors are the source of authority and of the body of customs called adat, which regulates every action of human life. Figural sculpture often embodies the ancestral presence, and heirlooms such as textiles and gold ornaments are tangible links to it.

Adapted from

DMA label copy. From TAZ file "Pacific text panels."