In Focus

Comb 2008.73

Exotic jewelry has always received a great deal of attention in first-contact situations (between foreign cultures). Tanimbar was no different in this respect. At the turn of the 19th century during an extended period of exploration of the islands, this type of ornamental comb (a so-called suar silai in the language of the island of Yamdena) was mentioned in publications unusually often, and it was even depicted several times. To this we owe our relative familiarity with the background and recent history of this artifact.

Our most reliable source of information by far is the missionary Petrus Drabbe, who lived on Tanimbar from 1915 until 1935. He discusses the ornamental comb in terms of an interesting feature of traditional Tanimbarese culture: the division of men and women into various age groups through the use of external devices and signifiers. Central to this was the distinction between boys and girls who were "marriageable" and those who were "not marriageable yet." After their years of puberty, the boys would join the so-called tabweri, a group with several subclasses. Through marriage and reproduction, this adolescent status would slowly change to the rank of an older man: a tabweri would become a so-called makene.

At the start of the 20th century, only the makene would wear the suar silai, or "great comb." They were not obliged to do so, but if they—as dignified elders—felt so inclined, they could wear it. The comb was carved from a single piece of wood, and the handle, which had two symmetrical halves, was usually beautifully decorated. These decorations would often consist of ingeniously carved, small bone or ivory sheets inlaid into the wood. As in the Dallas example, the sides were usually finished with this material as well. The suar silai was worn flat on the head with the handle to the back. In a hole in the middle of the top of this handle, a large plume was placed, typically made of bird's feathers.

According to Drabbe, the suar silai was part of a somewhat more elaborate costume. Besides the great comb, many makene would wear two additional accessories: the wangpar, a type of collar made of white Ovula ovum shells, and a head ornament called indar lele. This last ornament was composed of a row of tiny rings, usually cut from the bone of a swordfish, which were attached to the forehead with a piece of string or strip of cotton. In Tanimbarese culture, the suar silai, wangpar, and indar lele formed a decorative triad.

Drabbe's reports describe two remarkable situations in which wearing the precious object was more or less compulsory. They were expected to be displayed during an official duel (the suar silai in particular) and also when chiefs actively exercised their duties.[1] These occasions trumped everyday usage and could therefore suggest a more profound meaning attached to the jewelry. However, Drabbe, who was at a loss as to what this deeper meaning might be, did not pursue matters any further.

Fortunately, early literature provides further information. Reports from 19th-century travelers recount that in earlier times, only a select group could wear the jewelry. To this group belonged the champion, warriors, and chiefs of the village. These were all men who defended the prestige of the community through violence, which is why the adornments were part of a costume aimed at impressing the enemy.

Each of these three ornaments probably had its own fear-inspiring message. The wangpar, for example, was common throughout most of the Moluccas, and in 1678 Georg Eberhard Rumphius reported that the collar of shells represented a great headhunter's "proof of bravery."[2]

Similarly, at least on the island of Larat, the suar silai must have had a deeper significance. As can been seen in a sketch made by J.A. Jacobsen, the Larat comb had a boat's prow for its top decoration, an element that, according to the Berlin-based ethnologist, represented "the actual jewel of the comb." Sometimes the comb would be crowned by the figure of a dog, fish, rooster, or snake, all animals that could often be found—as in the Dallas example—in the inlay as well.[3]

This recalls the symbolism of the Tanimbarese war proa (double-hulled sailboats). One the prow of such boats, one would typically find the emblem (faniak) of the village: a depiction of the animal that supported and protected the seafaring warriors. Its protection was also desirable in battles on dry land. In such cases, a symbolic war proa was formed by the warriors, in which the "great comb," filled with spiritual power, would be worn—probably by the champion.

The old and the new were clearly intermingling on Tanimbar during the dynamic period described by Father Drabbe. At the start of the 20th century, the suar silai had lost its exclusiveness but had gained a broader use as an ornament for an older man, the makene. Eventually, however, it would lose even this function. The islands of Maluku Tenggara became part of modern Indonesia, in which no place remained for "old fashioned" jewelry.

[1] Drabbe 1940: 27-28.

[2] See Rumphius 1678 in Buijze 2001: 105.

[3] Jacobsen 1896: 217.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Comb," 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), 290-291.