Cultures & Traditions

Men's Art Making in Timorese Cultures

Throughout Timor, the crafting of containers and ritual implements, the construction of houses and their architectural environs, the carving of ancestor statues, and the making of weapons were typically male endeavors. Aesthetically comparable to the most accomplished textiles, which were preeminently produced by women, are the beautifully decorated containers used for storing stimulants such as tobacco and betel, and also ritual spoons. The majority of these containers (made from wood, gourd, bone, and bamboo) were crafted by men, and the cutting of spoons from water-buffalo horn, wood, or coconut shell was also a typical male endeavor. These were produced in a traditional and usually very skillful fashion until about the mid-20th century. As early as 1903, a study was published on the containers. It showed that the most fascinating examples originated from West Timor. Besides various geometrical forms, two decorative designs were emphasized here: the “blossom” motif (usually consisting of a three-pronged leaf) and the “morning star” pattern (often depicted as a kind of spiderweb).

The splendidly decorated ritual spoons were found over a much larger area than West Timor. The most impressive specimens, often adorned with beautiful openwork carving, are probably those of the Tetun in Central Timor. An interesting feature of their decora­tion is the frequent use of human figures, as well as the bird motif. Both subjects are sometimes rendered in high relief, and in some rare cases the human figures are even partially three-dimensional. These human shapes probably had a meaning comparable to that of the birds, signifying that the deceased had said his farewells to the community and was now a part of the realm of the ancestors.

Other important ritual tableware was typically decorated with bird and human patterns as well. Ritual ladles, water pitchers, and beakers often have bowls fashioned from plain coconut shell, while their wooden handles are elaborately decorated. These handles frequently take the form of a single large stylized bird or ances­tor figure, in some cases adorned with striking tattoos. In fact, the result often looked less like a decorative handle than an artful statuette that was also used as a handle.

Typical of Timorese art is the way in which the surface of a motif was filled in, as is the case with many spoons (whether large or small, horn or wood). Within the contours of a bird shape, for example, decorative bands composed of double lines and rows of small dots filled in the form, all carved in relief. Comparable deco­rative patterns were found all over the island, on both large and small objects. These patterns are also noticeable as architectural or decorative flourishes on residences and granaries.

These houses and their immediate architectural environs, although quite different in size and scale from the smaller objects, provided a third, very important category of artwork created by men. Houses that were spiritually connected with the founding ancestors of a clan or lineage—the so-called houses of origin— were generally beautifully decorated. Within a clan, these named dwellings were ordered in a hierarchical way and were of great significance to its members. They represented the visible symbol of a group and, more important, functioned as the connection between the living and their ancestors; they and their annexes were ritual centers. However, the relation between the members of a social group and a house of origin was (and is) at times not obvious. Even though clans and lineages had such (named) houses, there were also social groups—with houses of origin— for which the affiliations were diffuse and varied. Besides alliances based on descent or marriage, residence too could play a role, and outsiders (for­mer slaves or refugees) could be admitted to the group as well.

Throughout Timor, the architecture and decoration of a house of origin had its own specific character. The decoration would often be aimed at propagating the status of an individual group. An example of this can be found in gable finials in the shape of buffalo horns; owning buffalo was an essential indicator of status on Timor. Furthermore, the main posts, joists, and walls of a house were fre­quently adorned with depictions of totemic animals and various geometric forms. The splendidly ornamented door panels found in the Tetun residences of North Belu have become highly renowned.

In precolonial times, a house of origin was often part of a “village of origin,” a cluster of family residences. These hamlets were usu­ally located on a hilltop that was easy to defend; conflicts between princedoms—especially over (alleged) cattle theft and claims on sandalwood trees and trees with beehives—were once common­place. In the vicinity of an important house of origin (such as the eldest house of a clan), there would often be a connected small sac­rificial temple, where the graves of esteemed ancestors, including stone platforms with altars and pole sculptures of the clan found­ers (ai tos) were located. These ai tos, in fact, constituted the only category of ancestor statues on Timor.

The term ai tos literally means “hardwood,” and most of the clan founder statues, both male and female, were traditionally made of such wood. These pole sculptures were usually approximately forty inches tall, with only a rather rudimentarily carved head topped with a stone like a hat. More detailed, but rarer, examples were made of white limestone. The best-documented ones are those of the Northern Tetun in Central Timor. Particularly notice­able in this area, besides geometric decorations with many double spirals, are the representations of head ornaments. Moreover, there were examples with a so-called Janus head; in such cases, the faces of the first male and female ancestor would adorn opposite sides of the same pole.

Just like a house of origin, the sacrificial temple connected to it had a particular architectural style that varied by area. The sacrificial temples were known as uma lulik, “sacred house,” in East Timor and in West Timor primarily as ume le’u. The sacred aspect mainly concerned the ancestral heirlooms stored or hanging inside of them and believed to be dangerous, related, as they were, to war and headhunting, and endowed with the spiritual potency to kill enemies. The pos­session of such dangerous and volatile attributes was considered of profound and grave importance. They would traditionally be propitiated with offer­ings in times of war (often by sprinkling them with the blood of sacrificial animals) in the hopes of ensuring a successful battle or headhunting raid.

Among these heirlooms were the old weaponry that legendary headhunters had used in victorious battles (swords and shields, for example) and also objects connected to the rituals of war, such as dancing masks and drums. The latter were used for victory celebra­tions and other dances.

Abolished by colonial authorities, all villages of origin have by now been abandoned, and most Timorese have moved to modern settlements. Often a social group would build itself a new house of origin in the new settlement, regularly accompanied by a new sacrificial temple to store the ancestral heirlooms. Often, however, these were situated in a special room in the new house of origin. At the same time, many of the ai tos statues have not been moved, since these were believed to be too thoroughly connected to the soil of the village of origin. Until the mid-20th century, they could be found in the location of the old villages, overgrown by tropical vegetation.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Traditional Art in Timorese Princedoms," 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), 245-251.