In Focus

Boat symbolism in Southeast Moluccan Art

On most Maluku Tenggara islands, the boat not only served as a means of transport; it was also considered an important model of society. In the Kai, Tanimbar, and Babar archipelagos, as well as on the islands of Luang, Sermata, Leti, and Damar, the occupants of houses and villages saw themselves as a ship’s crew, a view that was expressed in various ways. The Tanimbarese, for example, con­sidered their houses to be large ships with their prows pointing toward the sea. The horn-shaped ridgepole decorations on both the sea side and the land side were indicated with the term kore, which was also a word used for the artistic prow boards of the actual boats.[1]

Similarly, on some Babar islands, large traditional houses were associated with sailing boats that followed the orbit of the sun from east to west. Inside the house, this symbolic course was reflected in the names of the living spaces. For example, the eastern rooms were part of the helmsman’s area and the western rooms were part of the pilot’s area. The boat concept was also incorporated in the architecture of the house. On the eastern and western sides of the ridgepole, upwardly curving gable ends were applied, provid­ing the ridgeline with the basic shape of a ship.

Just as with houses, many villages in Maluku Tenggara were also thought of in terms of boats with crews. This association was easy to make, because many large family houses or compounds originally formed independent units and could operate as small, walled villages. Even when different descent groups started living together at a later stage, the boat model was usually maintained. For example, on some islands in the Babar archipelago, large villages were built in which one family identified itself as a symbolic helmsman, another as a bailer, and a third as a pilot. This “village boat”—just like the local fam­ily house—was oriented in terms of the sun’s orbit in the sky, with the helmsman living in the east, the pilot living in the west, and the bailer living in between.

In addition to its use as an architectural and spatial model, the boat image functioned in another way in Maluku Tenggara. With the aid of this symbolism, rituals recounted the creation of society. The representatives of the mythical first ancestors played a primary role in these rituals. Thus, a magnificent blueprint of island life was reflected in nautical terms that reaffirmed the most important social values and the division of labor between men and women.

The rituals were based on a type of metaphor for marriage fre­quently found on the western islands, but most likely illustrative for a much larger region. In this metaphor, the woman was regarded as a boat, lying on the beach, waiting for a man who wanted to go sailing. Only when the man—the helmsman or captain—boarded the boat could it set sail, that is, could a family (or society) come into being. This imagery featured in various ceremonies, for example in the construction ritual of a traditional boat and also, on various islands, in the building ritual of the family house, the symbolic boat. Despite considerable regional variations, this type of ritual usually reflected the marriage ceremony of the founding ances­tors. One part of the construction was marked as a feminine “hull” or “keel,” whereas another part—for example the main post—was marked as a masculine “captain” or “helmsman.” The union of these parts brought the family (or social unit) into being, just as one would launch a ship after its completion.

These rituals simultaneously displayed core social values. The construction of the feminine parts took place in an atmosphere of “coolness,” aimed at growth and fertility, while the masculine parts were applied in an atmosphere of “heat,” referring to lethal danger. Through all kinds of symbols, the founding father was portrayed as a “great (head)hunter,” who had acquired his reputation because of his capacity to kill. At the same time, these references showed the traditional division of tasks in the region: the care of children and crops (all things concerning new life) was a typical feminine affair, while protecting the family reputation, especially by means of warfare, was viewed as the male’s domain. On some islands (as in the Babar archipelago, for example), the saying “women look inward, whereas men look outward” was common.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Life and Death in Southeast Moluccan Art," 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), 275-281.