In Focus

Architectural sculpture depicting a monkey (ba'e)

In the past, the great clan houses of the Ono Niha were adorned both inside and outside with richly figural ornamentation. These figures on wall panels, beams, and posts made reference to the lives of the residents both as part of this world and in the afterlife. The Ono Niha created residential dwellings that reflected their religious and cultural ideas about the cosmos and their place in it. The upper world and underworld were clearly defined and distinguished from each other by their respec­tive flora and fauna. Fish and crocodiles, for example, as inhabitants of the underworld, abound as decorations on the large stone tables that were set up in front of a house. In contrast, portraits of birds and monkeys, animals that tend to settle in the upper regions of the trees and are thus associated with the sky or the upper world, can be found in the roof section of a house.

This unusual sculpture shows a monkey with a raised tail. Although it stands on its four limbs, the monkey was not conceived by its woodcarver as a freestanding sculpture, but rather served as a figural adornment on a house post. Collection documents reveal that the monkey was separated from a wooden beam or post in the 1960s. Whether it was attached standing on a beam or looking down at a post below remains uncertain. The downward-focused gaze allows for both possibilities.

The artist has carved the monkey—including its extremities— from one large block of wood. The body of the monkey is not depicted in naturalistic detail, but is reduced to its most essen­tial form. It was produced with a relatively broad woodcarver’s knife. The parallel knife marks reveal the woodcarver’s exacting self-assurance and skill, emphasizing the physical tenseness of a watchful animal ready to fight or take flight at any moment. This impression of vigilance is enhanced by the wide- open eyes, bris­tling fur, jaws with bared teeth, inflated genitalia, and the posture of the monkey’s head and long, raised tail, both turned slightly toward the left. All these details argue against the sculpture’s being an apotropaic protective figure, but instead suggest that it was intended, like a good watchdog, to warn against approaching harm or calamity.

This guardian monkey stands out as a distinctly individualistic work of art that differs from other known similar wood sculptures of the Ono Niha with their generally smoother and more polished surfaces.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Architectural sculpture depicting a monkey (ba'e)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 56.