Cultures & Traditions
Batak Art and the West
The arts and crafts of the Batak became extremely popular as souvenirs among European travelers, colonial officials, missionaries, plantation employees, collectors, and tourists beginning in the mid-19th century. They served as visible proof of a dangerous journey made to the land of alleged man-eaters and exotic “savages.” Magic staffs, ancestor figures, and amulets testified to the “primitiveness of the heathens” and therefore to the perceived necessity to comprehensively “civilize” them. The Batak came under the authority of the Dutch colonial administration, and the majority were Christianized between 1860 and 1908. During this period, Europeans placed more emphasis on quantity than on quality when collecting ethnographica, and they did not consider the products of wood-carvers, brass casters, goldsmiths, and weavers to be works of fine art.
What fascinates us about the art of the Batak now, in our own time? What makes a sculpture into a work of art? The aesthetic impact of a particular object can be very different for people from different cultures. Time and geographic location also affect how an object is perceived. Subsequent generations certainly judge the artistic value of an object that was used by a long-deceased ancestor differently than he himself would have judged it. Members of other, foreign, cultures also view and interpret such an object differently than did its original creator. This may reflect different aesthetic values, but also perhaps insufficient knowledge about the intention and function of an object. Prejudices and a lack of respect for the products of other cultures are also a factor and can lead to misinterpretations.
It is often the unknown, the strange, and the exotic that fascinate a Western art lover about the art of the Batak. Indonesia is far away. Few Westerners know Batakland from their own travels; most people obtain their knowledge only from books, film, or travelogues. And precisely in these “sources,” primarily from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, we find reports about cannibalism, headhunting, and continual fighting among villages. The mountainous world of Lake Toba, which remained inaccessible to foreigners into the 19th century, was shrouded in mystery and was the subject of adventure stories. The veneration of ancestors included an elaborate funeral cult that practiced secondary burials, which were of great interest to Westerners.
Like many traditional peoples in Indonesia, the Batak practiced secondary burials. Several years after first being buried, the bones were disinterred, cleaned, and mourned. This was sometimes accompanied by ceremonies that included dancing, the slaughtering of ritual animals, and feasting. Once properly prepared, the bones were stored in an elaborate "bone house," which was erected to honor a deceased ancestor and to further raise the status of living descendants. These ceremonies allowed the living to have contact with and say good-bye to the dead, and the dead to have a final lingering joy in the company of the living. To curious outsiders, secondary burials elicited great fascination, as they were quite different from European or Christian burial practices.
Ancestor figures, which could still be found throughout the region in the 19th century, first came to the attention of art connoisseurs around the beginning of the 20th century. Around that time, perceptions of “the art of primitive peoples” began to change in the Western world as many forms of non-Western art were embraced and championed by Western artists. Western attitudes toward the art of the Batak also slowly began to change. Nonnaturalistic sculptures, in particular, were from then on viewed through different eyes.
 For example, see Polo et al. 1993, vol. 2: 366, for Marco Polo’s incorrect observation in 1292 that the Batak ate their parents when they were too old to work.
Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Batak of Sumatra," 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), 61-65.