In Focus

Pair of male and female ancestor figures (ana deo)

In central Flores, two powerful creator gods are recognized and revered. The god of the heavens is called Deva or Mori Meze, and his female companion is Nitu, the goddess of the earth. Perhaps of greater everyday relevance is the power of the ancestors, since they are more closely associated with the daily lives of all living descen­dants. Both gods and ancestors must be respected and honored, for failure to do so would result in chaos and disorder. Ancestor sculptures play significant roles in the religious life of the commu­nity, serving as points of contact between the living and the dead.

The Nage people of central Flores are known for their wood sculptures, collectively called ana deo. These ancestor figures take the form of freestanding paired male and female figures, figures carved atop posts, and sometimes a male-female couple sitting astride horses. Post figures stood on either side of the entrance to houses belonging to important and powerful clan leaders. While serving a protective function, their presence also proclaimed that the owner had erected a shrine in the village to honor his clan ancestors. Equestrian sculptures (jara heda) were supposedly placed near female ancestral shrines (sao heda), although other sources claim that they were placed near male ceremonial houses in addition to more distant, and smaller, female shrines featuring riderless horses. The literature is less helpful regarding the specific location and context of freestanding male and female figures, but all are declared to be ancestors.

This Nage ana deo pair was most likely once clothed, the apparel now lost. Their bodies are anatomically correct and naturalistic with carefully observed and detailed clavicles, nipples, breasts, ankles, sexual organs, hands (although damaged), and toenails (rarely depicted). Kneecaps are indicated by flat circles, much like those appearing in certain sculp­tures from Nias and from the Batak regions of Sumatra. Horsehair was once pegged into the heads, lip (in the case of the male), and genital areas of the couple. With the exception of remnants on the head, this hair has been lost. Separately carved arms bent at the elbows extend forward, with the palms of the hands facing upward. The meaning of this gesture is not known. It could indicate the couple’s request for veneration, possibly an offer of protection and beneficence, or a gesture of supplication. Other Flores figures also show the hands in a palms-up position. They appear caught in mid-action, legs sharply bent at the knees, while seem­ing about to spring upward. The movement communicated by this posture is extremely unusual in the art of Indonesia.

Excerpt from

George Ellis, "Pair of male and female ancestor figures (ana deo)," 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), 238.