In Focus

Memorial stone or grave marker (penji reti), 2004.58

This penji (gravestone) in the Dallas Museum of Art collection is one of finest surviving stones outside Sumba (see also 2004.57). Although weathered, its beautiful and sensitive use of line and form clearly indicates the hand of a master sculptor. In contrast to many penji, this exceptional sculpture is less angular and rigid, its design rippling over the entire surface of the stone in a sinuous tribute to a revered ancestor. In addition, the design elements are not rigidly confined to distinct registers, as is the case with most other penji, and there are fewer such registers. As a sculptural work, the piece is aesthetically understated rather than excessive or overly demonstrative.

Here, the dominant motif consists of ferns nestled together in a spoon-shaped formation, the leaves increasing in size as they move upward from the base. The characteristic coils or spirals of fern imagery occur in the art of many societies worldwide, where they represent fecundity, growth, death, and above all, regeneration, as well as the transfer of knowledge between generations. In this piece, the stems are carved within the sculptural frame, but their heads appear to burst beyond it, seeming to escape from the hard lifeless stone. The result is an irregular outer edge and an aesthetically compelling sculptural form.

Above the ferns are bands of curvilinear elements that are probably more abstract references to ferns or tendriled plant life. At the top right there seems to be a "compressed" unfurling fern, which is closer to the sun's warmth and power than any of the other subjects depicted on the stone. In juxtaposition to this upper-world symbolism, at the top left is a fish, an image related to the underworld and death. At its base is a single standing male figure, possibly representing an ancestor, that does not appear on the verso. The undecorated base was likely anchored in the ground, as suggested by a difference in patina from the decorated area. It seems unusual, however, to carve a figure there since it would not be seen.

To the Sumbanese, the ceremonial dragging of such enormously heavy stones represents the height of human obligation and reward that traditionally exists among extended kinsman. Lende Mbatu, the patriarch of the Weyewa people, said of the time during a ritual when a stone is erected: "My corrals are all empty but my wealth is all around me."[1] Or as another Weyewa elder put it, "I am not a rich man according to most human reckonings, but I am rich in ability and I am rich in knowledge, I am rich in favors, and I am rich in cooperation with others."[2]

[1] Maybury-Lewis 1992: 71.

[2] Ibid.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "Memorial stone or grave marker (penji reti)," 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), 236-237.