Times & Places

East Nusa Tenggara (Nusa Tengarra Timur)

Located in the east central portion of Indonesia is the modern province of East Nusa Tenggara, consisting of more than five hundred islands. The largest are Timor, Flores, and Sumba, and the combined population of the province in 2008 was roughly four and a half million. The capital is Kupang in West Timor. In con­trast to the majority of Indonesia’s people, who are Muslim, the people of East Nusa Tenggara are nominally Christian, but many continue to practice their traditional religion.

In many areas of East Nusa Tenggara, a dualistic supreme being was recognized. Ancestor sculptures were carved in pairs includ­ing a male and female, and female and male shrines were erected together. Opposing forces were believed to balance each other; for example, evil was balanced by good, cold by heat, and so on. Unless balance between opposite forces was maintained, chaos and calamity would follow. Governed by traditional religion, adat law provided guidelines that pointed the way toward community harmony and well-being. The arts of Sumba and Flores reinforced adat and had prescribed functions and forms as dictated by the customs, laws, beliefs, and ethics of the original ancestors.

On Sumba and many areas of Flores, society was divided into three classes: aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. Not surprisingly, the power and wealth of the aristocracy assured that the rarest, most beautiful, and most spectacular works of art were reserved specifically for its members’ use. Beautiful textiles and jewelry connoted royal status, and certain materials used in their creation were restricted to royalty. On Sumba, the dead were sometimes wrapped in hundreds of valuable textiles, the number and quality dependent on status. With the slow demise of traditional culture, many of these works lost their meaning and value.

Little archaeological work has been done that sheds light on the early history of East Nusa Tenggara, and written accounts are scant. A Chinese description from 1349 mentions trade in silver, iron, por­celain, and cloth, all exchanged for sandalwood in the Flores area, although Flores itself was not a major source of sandalwood. Other accounts refer to the influence of the East Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in the 14th century. It is not clear, however, what the full impact of Majapahit influence was at the time. Political and religious influences do not seem to have automatically resulted in profound change, and traditional religion and customs were largely maintained. Islamic trade centers slowly grew in power, and by the 15th century, they exercised considerable influence, especially in the coastal areas.

Europeans began to arrive in the early 16th century in search of both spices and opportunities for Christian proselytizing. Their primary attention was directed to the lucrative spice trade and focused on the larger islands in the west, as well as on the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) in the east. The Dutch eventually prevailed, and their commercial interests continued to be concentrated in these areas. The people living in remote mountainous regions and the smaller islands to the east remained largely relegated to splendid isolation and benign neglect, considered as they were to inhabit backwaters of limited economic interest. Dutch military action brought Flores under the colonial umbrella only in 1846, and Sumba in 1907.

But contact did certainly occur between the peoples of these far-flung islands, linked by seafaring traders, pirates, and slavers. Island products of the forest and sea made their way to distant ports for distribution throughout the archipelago and beyond. Trade in textiles was especially active, Indian cloths being particu­larly desired. Widespread textile trade was conducted throughout Southeast Asia, but one type of double ikat (patola) had a major impact on the textile designs of many indigenous Indonesian peoples. On Sumba and in certain areas of Flores, talented and cre­ative weavers drew inspiration from patola designs, making changes and modifications that reflect local circumstances and preferences. Trade in sandalwood and horses from Sumba and other islands was of special importance to the colonial government, resulting in the decimation of sandalwood forests in the region, as was also the case in distant Hawaii.

Dutch policy toward the indigenous population was extremely pragmatic and effective. Prominent leaders of Sumba and Flores were identified, empowered, and given titles and rank by the colonial authorities. Significant gifts and payments by the Dutch assured their allegiance, at the same time enhancing their existing prestige and power. The majority of all trade was conducted under local auspices, and the trade and sale of sandalwood, horses, cattle, textiles, and slaves resulted in the accumulation of substantial wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of aristocrats. Wealth provided the opportunity for noble families to acquire items considered prestigious and exotic. Precious metals, beads, valuable textiles, ceramics, and jewelry in gold and silver were obtained.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "The Art of East Nusa Tenggara: Sumba and Flores," 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), 209-213.