In Focus

Comb (hai kara jangga)

In the Lesser Sunda Islands, the use of turtle shells for crafting items of personal adornment is not uncommon. On the island of Sumba, however, striking women's combs were fashioned from this precious and beautiful material. Combs fabricated from turtle shell (hai kara jangga) were worn by adult upper-class women on important ceremonial occasions, and fathers gave them to daughters when the girls reached puberty and were of a marriageable age. They were worn at the back of the head as a symbol of sexual maturity and availability. These valued and handsome combs were included in the inventory of goods forming royal treasuries, along with ivory bracelets; ornaments of gold, silver, and other metals; textiles; and important porcelains.

Sumba artists took maximum advantage of the natural shape of a turtle's curved back to create combs that follow the curve of a woman's head. Their upper section is fenestrated to reveal simple abstract designs, birds, horses, aquatic creatures, skull-trees (and-ung), and occasionally humans, motifs that refer to wealth and important aspects of the secular and religious life of the community.

The Dallas comb, collected in Melolo, East Sumba, is populated with cocks, cockatoos, and horses flanking a skull-tree, with human figures at each end. Roosters are sacrificial animals associated with the upper world, and horses are symbols of upper-class wealth and prestige. A leafless skull-tree (andung) occupies a prominent location in the center of a village. The Sumbanese were once headhunters, and after a successful raid the skulls of the vanquished were displayed on the branches of such a tree. Severed heads not only declared the prowess of warriors but also proclaimed the good luck and prosperity that would surely follow their successful hunt.

The use of turtle shell as a material for crafting noblewomen's combs is appropriate, since turtles (tanoma) are symbols of noble lineage. Turtles are carved on memorial stones (penji) and are also motifs on the clothing of the aristocracy, both male and female. Considered one of the oldest creatures in the sea, they are associated with seniority, wisdom, diplomacy and in myth act as guides for heroes embarking on epic journeys.

The natural beauty of the variegated translucent shell combined with the technical virtuosity of the comb's maker together result in a superlative example of Sumbanese art.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "Comb (kai hara jangga)," 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), 220-221.