Times & Places
Flores, a Portuguese word for “flower,” is the second-largest island in East Nusa Tenggara, stretching for twenty-five miles from west to east. Sumba lies to the southwest, Timor to the southeast, and Sulawesi to the north. This island’s topography is varied, encompassing coastal lowlands and rugged volcanic mountains that rise to over seven thousand feet. Most Westerners are familiar with the fearsome and sometimes man-eating Komodo dragons found on the west coast of Flores and on the nearby island of Komodo. By contrast, the one and a half million inhabitants of Flores are little known outside the region.
The population of Flores is divided roughly into five major ethnic groups, based primarily on language. From west to east, they are the Manggarai, Ngadha, Ende-Lio, Sikka, and Lamaholot, who today live in the five regencies (political divisions) of Manggarai, Ngada, Ende, Sikka, and East Flores. Traditionally the Florenese were primarily farmers, growing cotton and indigo, dryland rice, and cassava, along with maize introduced from the West. A large percentage of today’s population are Christian, but Islam has a strong presence in some areas, and aspects of traditional religious beliefs still survive in more remote and conservative enclaves.
For hundreds of years, Flores has been subject to external forces and interests that have included foreign invasions, sizable migrations of people, outside political control, and Christian and Islamic influences, all of which have served to shape the arts, particularly textiles. The full range and variety of textile styles is remarkable. Arguably, the most striking are those woven by the Ngadha noblewomen of Ngada Regency, two of which are found in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.
The Ngadha draw their name from their largest clan. Society is generally composed of aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. The highest class, the gae meze, traces its ancestry to the ancient past, constituting an aristocracy based on descent. Traditionally the gae meze largely controlled all aspects of clan life, and specific textiles could be woven, owned, used, and worn only by its members.
Three-dimensional figurative sculpture in wood was an important part of the artistic repertoire of the island. The Nage people, members of the Ende-Lio-Nage language group living to the east in the Ngada Regency, are particularly known for their sculpture. Figural carving may have been present in many other areas at one time, but the majority of reports and photographic evidence available during the Dutch colonial period points to this area as a center of the art, perhaps in part due to its conservative religious views.
While carving is still practiced in the region today, its presence is on the wane. Stone sculpture is present but rare. Beautiful jewelry crafted from precious metals is striking, some forms echoing those of Sumba. This similarity may be explained by the fact that metalsmiths from Savu and Roti were responsible for the creation of many pieces, traveling to both Sumba and Flores to fulfill commissions for noble families.
The arts of the indigenous peoples of Sumba and Flores were shaped by thousands of years of internal and external influences, but most existing works can be dated only to the late 19th and 20th centuries. It might be tempting to say that artworks present in the early 20th century are mirror images of those created hundreds of years earlier. We know, however, that this is not the case. Foreign influences and intervention certainly hastened the demise of arts tied directly to traditional religion, but for a limited period of time, the production and diversity of jewelry and textiles were actually energized and increased by the economic stimulus that followed, particularly among the wealthiest strata of local cultures, the nobility. The breakdown of adat law that had dictated the production of Sumbanese and Florenese arts, as well as the continuing growth of Islam and Christianity, have severely compromised the need for these art forms in traditional contexts as well as their function and use.
Nevertheless, some artists—especially weavers—continue to serve limited local demand with exceptional textiles while also working for an international clientele. Their special talents and creativity have also led to new art forms, based on traditional styles, but demonstrating departures and innovations that are very exciting and promising. Beautiful jewelry is also produced, including excellent fakes, reproductions, and new styles.
George Ellis, "The Art of East Nusa Tenggara: Sumba and Flores," 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), 209-213.