Cultures & Traditions

Themes in Traditional Indonesian Arts

In most of the more than 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia, one encounters the tradition that when claim­ing the new land, the mythical founder first had to deal with its autochthonous inhabitants—some of them human, some of them the spirits that had always been there, associated with the natural world and predating the arrival of humankind. These were the true owners of the land, and only after concluding a pact of reciprocal respect with them could the newcomers settle on it for good. In many places, there are still groups who trace their lineage back to the tie between the founder-ancestor and one of the mythical original inhabitants. Only their members can perform the sacred function of the lord of the land. In contrast, the descendants of later immigrants are differentiated by the posses­sion of secular authority and political power.

To seal the pact concluded between the immigrants and the indigenous populace, it was common for the founder-ancestor to take a native woman as his bride. This not only guaranteed his future progeny but also gave him access to the land’s fertility and to the blessings of the wilderness, which had existed before the arrival of the first immigrants. In tradi­tional Indonesian belief, every marriage is a reaffirmation of that primal union. It is customary to marry outside of one’s immedi­ate kin group. This tends to forge ties of amity between different groups and reduces the danger of conflict within a given region. The community that furnishes the bride bestows fertility, is therefore ritually superior to the one that receives her, and can expect the respect and active support of the groom’s community.

Ancestors, representatives of the original cosmos, and wife-givers were three sources of blessings in Indonesia, all of which find expression in art. It is common in traditional Indonesian art forms to encounter depictions of ancestors, indications of how a community’s environment is perceived, and records of matrimonial alliances. Works of art are connected with the major rituals by which associated families assure themselves of divine protection.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 17-27.