In Focus

Male protective figure (pagar)

This protective figure is one of a pair; the Dallas Museum of Art also owns the female counterpart to this male figure. A third figure is said to have originally accompanied this pair, which the previous owner could neither see nor buy. Masterworks of beauty and stylistic fidelity, both exceptional figures were acquired in 1970 from descendants of the last Batak priest-king, Sisingamangaraja XII.

Protective figures of this type were set up mostly in front of residential buildings and in the fields, but also inside private dwellings. The peg beneath the base proves that this figure most likely stood on the cross-girder of a roof construction. The residue of old smoke in the patina, which rose up from the open fireplaces over the course of many years, also suggests this. What had for­merly been a rather dull patina was transformed into a shiny, dark reddish-brown surface through intense use, and perhaps through polishing by previous owners. Like many other Batak cult objects, pagar figures received regular sacrificial offerings in order to main­tain or intensify their effectiveness against disastrous influences. Food and beverage sacrifices—mostly eggs and rice, as well as palm wine and the blood of sacrificial animals—were ritually smeared onto such figures.

Both the male and female figures previously wore headdresses, which in each case were fastened to a small peg on the skull. As with magic staffs, this decoration consisted of human hair or horsehair, which was attached by means of a woven cotton ribbon or a tricolor band of thread. Feathers and the fibrous material of the sugar palm were also sometimes used as a hair substitute. In the case of statues, a section of an animal’s skin or scalp with its remaining hair, usually a horse’s mane, was attached. The headdress must have originally been far larger in the case of the male figure, since its skull featured additional pegs, of which only one survives.

This figure’s gaze is trained straight ahead; the facial expres­sion projects a mixture of outward calm and inner forcefulness. The head, upper body, and legs are all about the same size respec­tively. The broadly angled nose with its indication of nostrils, the square chin, and the wide mouth with bulging lips are all typical stylistic details used in sculptural art in the regions around Lake Toba. The deeply cut, wide-set eyes, whose pupils were formerly emphasized by insertions of lead, are still lively and penetrating. The ears are adorned with an inner pattern, which is more extensive on the left one. The short, strong neck is set on a narrow upper body with clearly defined collarbones. A discernible ridge characterizes the vertical center of the body. The upper arms lie against the body and have square holes at the lower ends, into which forearms with hands originally stretched out toward the front at a ninety-degree angle. These no longer exist. The posture of the hands, however, would likely have corresponded more or less to that of the female figure. The unclothed figure stands in an open-leg posture, the hips narrower than in the female figure and the squarely carved legs slightly bent. The feet are not represented; instead the toes are merely suggested by vertical striations engraved into the front edge of the base, as is typical of Toba Batak statuary.

Excerpt from

Achim Sibeth, "Male protective figure (pagar)," 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), 77.