3. The History of Tanimbarese Art

To attempt to write the history of Tanimbarese art may not be an impossible task, however it difficult to see how it could be successfully accomplished. One of the main problems is the scarcity of material, both written documentation and actual artefacts. There are a number reasons for this scarcity. As noted above, in the colonial period contact with the Dutch was sparse, and thus the historical documentation available for those researching the history of the central Moluccas is simply not available for Tanimbar and the surrounding islands. Furthermore, the production of works related to an indigenous body of beliefs and conceptions ended in the 1920s, under the influence of the Christian missions, and the gradual shift towards Christian belief. There are few extant works from before this time partly due to the misguided fervour of the Protestant church, which was responsible for the burning of a large number of works.

The best source for the history of Tanimbarese art is Petrus Drabbe, however it is clear from his work that he had little feeling for the aesthetic or technical quality of the works about which he wrote:

Fine arts can scarcely be found in Tanimbar… one thing that could be classed as art is sculpture and the making of small statues. Most of these are in sitting posture. Of their forms it can be said that they are clumsy, and only infrequently do they possess distinctive contours. [Drabbe 1940 p.180. (Ch.13)]

The artistic skills of the Tanimbarese made more impact upon the English naturalist, Sir Henry Forbes, who visited the north of the archipelago at the end of the nineteenth century, but despite his enthusiasm, he gives little insight into the nature of earlier Tanimbarese art:

Of the intellectual characteristics of the Timor-Laut people I have formed no mean opinion. They are very clever carvers of wood and ivory; the “frameheads” of their prahus especially attract attention by the elegance of the devices and the excellence of the workmanship. The central pillars in houses are also elaborately carved. [Forbes 1884 p. 19]

The work of Drabbe, despite his clear lack of interest in and admiration for Tanimbarese carving, provides the best account available of its production and use, and he is informative on the social background to the art of Tanimbarese sculptors. From Drabbe it can be seen that the Tanimbarese would make sculptures as and when they needed them, and thus there was no monopoly or hereditary right to the trade of carving. However the high technical quality of many works still extant from the last century and, perhaps, even before this, suggests that there were individuals who specialised in the practice of sculpture when required to do so, and to whom the largest commissions would go. If a “history” is a rather too complex and daunting task, it would be helpful to consider a number of objects or classes of objects from the precolonial period in Tanimbar to attempt to apprehend at least some of the flavour of the work, and to suggest how they might have been conceived of or used.

The first of these shall be the tavu (Fordatan language: the Yamdenan equivalent is lamngatabu although the Fordatan term is more widely used in Yamdena whilst speaking in Indonesian). The tavu is a large wooden construction that stood at the centre of certain “named” (that is, noble) houses where it acted as the main ritual centre of the house. The tavu can be seen as a representation of the unities at the centre of the house or house-complex (mata rumah). The panel represents the massed weight of the ancestors, rather than any particular ancestor, as the “root” or “base” of the noble house and of its offspring, the affiliated commoner (“unnamed”) houses. [McKinnon 1992 p.92] The tavu consisted of a carved panel which stood as if supporting the main roof beam of a house. On either side of the central panel were raised “arms” which were lifted up to join the roof beam. A number of tavu still extant, and now in museum collections exhibit beautifully wrought spiral work carving which is a characteristic of earlier Tanimbarese art and occupy, to a greater or lesser extent, the central ground between pure abstraction and the relative realism of ancestor figurines (walut in Fordatan) which may have represented specific ancestors. These wooden figures would be placed above the tavu bound together in male-female pairs, and the tavu itself can be seen as a unity of opposites, of male and female. One example cited by McKinnon [1992 p.93] is of a work in the Museum voor Land-en-Volkenkunde in Rotterdam, which has symbols of the sun and the moon on its arms, symbols which were conceptualised in Tanimbar as male and female respectively. Others seem to tend more to maleness or to femaleness, portraying the appropriate genitalia, but in general these works are characterised by their bringing together of opposites. As a whole the tavu acted as what McKinnon calls, “an exquisitely elegant expression of a recomposed totality and synthetic unity,” which stood as the conceptual heart and underpinning of the house. The prow boards (kora ulu: Fordatan) about which Forbes enthuses were also characterised by the spiral forms of the tavu, and are often depicted with figures of cockerels, fish and the odd little beasts McKinnon calls, “monsters with toothy mouths.” The cockerel is, or was, in Tanimbar, a metaphor for the strutting arrogance of the nobleman (mela in Fordatan) whose plumage is the amassed gold of his house. In the past, these nobles would fight duels, sparring not with weapons (although in other circumstances this undoubtedly happened) but with words. The two mela would exchange pantun (four line improvised poems) in an attempt to crush the opponent with overbearing wit and arrogance. This battle, although it would not result in death, was earnest, “hot”, and dangerous for the participants, recalling the “challenge and lightening fast motion of the cockfight.” [McKinnon 1988 p.158] If these are the associations of the cock in earlier Tanimbarese art, perhaps the fish that swim below the feet of many of the birds act as watery twins to their feathered companions. If they represent sharks, as I suspect they do, then they perhaps hold the same connotations of danger and challenge as does the cock. The kora ulu would generally be decorated with shells on the forward cutting edge of the board. I was told by the owner of the ten lur, a beautifully carved example of such a kora ulu, that these would have made a roaring sound as the prow board cut through the waves, although the mechanics of the matter remain obscure. Abraham Amelwatin, a sculptor based in Alusi Krawain, told me that in earlier times a cockerel would be placed at the front the boat to act as a compass, perhaps possessed of this curious ability because the cock crows as the sun rises in the east, and this he claimed accounted for the iconography of the cock on the prow board.

One final and important class of sculpture that deserves consideration is the walut, or ancestor figure (occasionally called the Yamdenan equivalent of kukuwe.) There are a wide variety of these sculptures, and I am not sure how they would be classified, or whether indeed there were different classes of walut performing different functions. There are a number of examples in if Museum Nasional in Jakarta, in the Museum Siwalima in Ambon, and in the Tropenmuseun Amsterdam. Most of these figures are represented in squatting posture, as are their contemporary imitators, and in common with many such figures from throughout Southeast Asia. Yet still these works exhibit a wide range of forms and iconographies, and unlike the kora ulu and the tavu are characterised by a widely divergent levels of technical expertise, from the crude to the exquisitely carved. Here, skill in workmanship is of less importance than the power that resides in the sculpture, as shall be seen in the following section. The walut was, so it would seem, seen as the site of the power of the ancestors. Drabbe notes that hunters would take with them a small carving t ensure safety and success in the hunt [Drabbe 1940 p. 149 (Ch. 10)] and he notes that such carvings would be used for protection in other dangerous activities: for example the smelting of gold an the cutting of elephant tusks.

The “traditional” art of the Tanimbarese is varied both in style and in quality. The main distinguishing feature of much of it is the use of elaborate spiral motifs, and this is true to an extent for Tanimbarese cloth weaving too. Today these motifs rarely from a common part of the contemporary sculptor’s work, perhaps due to the complexity of the work involved. Carvings were produced for a wide range of reasons. Perhaps an impressive tavu or kora ulu would bring prestige on the house or the village, and add weight to their dealings in everyday life. However the carving of walut probably had less to do with prestige and more to do with expediency, and the harnessing of ancestral power to serve immediate ends. At present it is perhaps only possible to hint at the complexity of precolonial Tanimbarese art. A fuller history remains to be written.

2. Implementation

The fieldwork for this study was carried out on the islands of Yamdena and of Sera. There was insufficient time to travel to the islands of Larat and Fordata in the north, and contacts from these areas informed me (either rightly or wrongly) that there were no active sculptors in these areas. There are reportedly some monumental cement sculptures in Larat, but sources in Yamdena claimed that they were in a state of disrepair, and so this alone did not seem to justify a trip to the northernmost islands. Similarly, it was reported that in Selaru there are a number of working sculptors, but these reports were too vague to justify what might have been a long trip to the southernmost island of the Tanimbars to seek them out.

In the implementation of this study I travelled to the following villages: Weratan and Rumahsalut on the island of Sera; Meyano Raya (comprising Meyano Das and Meyano Bab); Alusi Krawain; Alusi Batjasi; Sangliat Dol; Sangliat Krawain; Tumbur; Wowonda; Olilit Raya (comprising Olilit Barn and Olilit Lama); Sifnana and the area around the capital of Saumlaki, all of these on the island of Yamdena. My plans to travel to Latdalam, Makatian and Kilon, all on the west coast of Yamdena, were frustrated by the difficulties of sea transport at the time of my research.

According to the data collected, there were in 1994-1995 active sculptors in the following villages:

Latdalam (Buce Dasfordate); Rumahsalut (Matias Fatruan);Weratan (Maximus Symus); Meyano Das (Raphael Labobar); Alusi Krawain (Abraham Amelwatin); Alusi Batjasi (Thomas Batlyakru); Kilon (artist or artists unknown); Lorwembun (Yakobus Tirel); Tumbur (more than eighty sculptors working in the village, some mentioned individually in the text); Olilit Lama (name of sculptor unknown); Olilit Barn (Stanislaus Fenyapwain, Simon Batlijeri and another reported, name unknown.)

Research was conducted according to a variety of methods. Much of the research was undertaken through the method that anthropologists like to call, rather vaguely, ‘participant observation’, which is to say, informally. However, given that sculpting in Tanimbar is, in many villages, neither a very frequent nor a very public activity, it was necessary to supplement this observation with more formal interviews, both recorded and unrecorded. A considerable amount of photographic data was also collected.

As far as possible I have tried to understand the work of the artists studied in terms of indigenous concepts and terminology, and to trace its significance according to Tanimbarese conceptions and ideology, rather than attempting to fit the data into any rigid preconceived framework. This has, I hope, allowed the work of the artists to speak for itself in something approaching or akin to its own language. The extent to which I have been successful in this is open to debate, yet I believe that the resulting picture is a useful approach to the understanding of Tanimbarese art as a whole.

Technical data pertaining to the process of the production of the artworks under discussion has been omitted. There are two reasons for this omission. Firstly most works were produced in a broadly similar fashion using standard carving tools – saws, choppers, chisels, pocket knives and files – and thus the method of work is often evident. Secondly it is not with the works under discussion as examples of technical expertise, but rather as indicators of and pointers to a particular set of conceptions, a certain range of ideas and meanings, that this report is concerned. However any data that is seen to be particularly of interest, for example the innovative use of a dessert spoon to produce cement works described to me by Stanislaus Fenyapwain, or that is of particular significance, such as the ritual observances followed by Abraham Amelwatin which are for him an integral part of the process of sculpture, are noted in the text.

After giving a broad background to the social and economic background to the material, there will be a consideration of the way in which the idea of the images is linked with the idea of power. This will be followed by a foray into Tanimbarese conceptions of history – what it is and what it does – which are illuminated by and illuminate the sculpture of the Tanimbarese, whilst drawing the seemingly disparate strands into a unity. This discussion will cover the work of all of the sculptors I met and talked with outside of the village of Tumbur. The social, economic and ideological background to carving in Tumbur is considerably different from this pattern, and has been given ample treatment by Lenssen [1993]. The length of my fieldwork in the village of Tumbur was insufficient to add considerably to the understanding given by Lenssen. Furthermore, due to the very different economic and social background to the work of the Tumburese carvers, given that the village economy is centred around the sculpture “industry,” the work of the Tumburese falls to some extent outside of the general pattern of Tanimbarese art. For this reason I have not discussed Tumburese sculpture in the main text, but have included an appendix summarising both Lenssen’s findings, and their relationship with my own observations. The bulk of fieldwork was carried out in the Tanimbar islands, yet this has been supported by meeting with sculptors in Ambon, and research in a number of museums and institutions in Indonesia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

1. Introduction

Author’s Note (2005)

On my return from Tanimbar, I wrote the following report to be submitted this to my sponsors. I also gave several public lectures. Since then, however, this report has languished in a bottom drawer and has not seen the light of day.

Although I am all too aware of the flaws within the following pages it does seem to me that, flawed or not, it is worth salvaging for online publication, if only because this is an area upon which very little has been written, and one that may not be without some interest. For all the shortcomings of the work I undertook after my return from Tanimbar, there is little other material available on the subject; and so I hope that the following pages may be of some benefit.

Birmingham, July 2005 – February 2006

Author’s Note (1995)

Drabbe’s ethnography of Tanimbar, Het Leven van den Tanembarees, (E.J. Brill, Leiden 1940) is a valuable source of material on Tanimbarese culture in the 1930s, and much of this is still of relevance to the contemporary study of Tanmibarese society. I have used the Indonesian translation of the work, which was made by Karel Mouw in 1981, and available from the Keuskupan Amboina. This hand-typed translation is a true labour of love but it is, I am told by those who are familiar with the original Dutch version, not without its shortcomings. I have therefore used in the text of this report, where possible, passages have been translated into English by McKinnon (both in her doctoral thesis of 1983, and in her book of 1991) where that option was available. Otherwise any references are to the Karel Mouw version, and translations are my own from the Indonesian. All page numbers are given with reference to this version of the book. Aware, however, that outside of Maluku the Karel Mouw version may be unavailable and that the use of the original for those with a knowledge of Dutch my be preferable, I have given references to chapter numbers also, to facilitate the finding of specific references or passages.

Newcastle, April 1995


The Tanimbar islands lie in the Arafura sea, to the East of Timor, a part of the arced chain islands that leads from Sumatra, through Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara to meet with Irian Jaya. Tanimbar is almost due north of Darwin, Australia, and lies south of the provincial capital town Ambon. Administratively it is a part of Maluku Tenggara, or Southeast Maluku, which includes the islands of Aru, Kei – Tual on Kei being the administrative capital of the district – and the islands to the west of Tanimbar towards Timor: Damar, Babar, Kisar and Leti. The Tanimbar islands are divided into two sub-districts (kecamatan) one of which administered from Saumlaki in the south on the island of Yamdena, the other from Larat in the north, the main trading and governmental centre being Saumlaki.

From the most northern to the most southern point, the Tanimbar islands stretch for around one hundred and thirty five miles. The islands are forested , although nowhere near as densely or as luxuriantly as the islands of the central Moluccas which receive much more rain. The largest island in the group is Yamdena, and the greatest part of the population of Tanimbar settled in the villages strung out along the east coast. There are a few villages on the West coast of Yamdena, but the interior is uninhabited. After Yamdena, Larat is the next most densely populated island in the archipelago, followed by Selaru, Fordata and Sera.

The predominant religion in the Tanimbar islands is Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. The east of Yamdena is the main Catholic stronghold whereas the Protestant church is more firmly established on Sera and in Fordata and Larat. The Catholic church is the longest established in Tanimbar, at least to the extent that records can show, first establishing permanent mission in 1910. There are a few Islamic villages on the Northwest coast of Yamdena, made up predominantly, I would imagine, of non-Tanimbarese, and those Tanimbarese who have married into the families of Islamic non-Tanimbarese. In Larat and Saumlaki, Islamic presence is also significant.

Livelihood for the Tanimbarese is mainly sought through farming using swidden (slash and burn) agriculture techniques, and through the usually abundant harvests of fish. In the interior are wild pig and buffalo, and these too are occasionally hunted for food. To supplement this subsistence economy, a significant source of income for the Tanimbarese is the twice-yearly copra crop which is sold to traders in Saumlaki and Larat, as well as in a number of villages. Otherwise, while food is frequently in good supply, money is often difficult to obtain.

The first clear records of external contact with Tanimbar, although it is likely that long before this time there had been established trade links with the outside world, are in the Seventeenth Century. However, lacking the precious spices of the central Moluccan islands of Ambon and the Bandas, throughout the Dutch colonial period the Tanimbar islands were not subject to the same cultural influences as were their more northern companions. Apart from sporadic contact with the colonial regime, it was not until this century with the establishment of the Catholic mission by Pastor Cappers and Pastor Klerks that the Dutch administration begin to make significant inroads into the islands. By the time of Drabbe’s ethnography in the late 1930s, it is likely that almost all of the inhabitants of Tanimbar were to some extent Christianised.

The Second World War saw the invasion of the Japanese, and when the war ended, the coming of Independence for Indonesia. Here as elsewhere, the remnants of the old administrative structure of the Dutch regime were taken over by the young Indonesian state. From this time onwards, the influence of the state has had an ever increasing degree of control over the internal affairs, culture and social life of the Tanimbarese.

There is a significant amount of literature on Tanimbar. The work of Petrus Drabbe whose ethnography of the islands was published in 1940, is a highly valuable source for ethnographic data on the life of the Tanimbarese before the coming of Indonesian Independence, although the world constructed by Drabbe is that of a Tanimbar before the influence of missionary activity and he does not consider the dynamics of his own involvement in the transformation of Tanimbarese culture. Drabbe also wrote grammars and dictionaries for Bahasa Fordata and Bahasa Yamdena, the two major indigenous languages in Tanimbar. More recently it has been the work of Susan McKinnon which has stimulated a renewed interest in the Tanimbar islands from the point of view of ethnographic and anthropological research. McKinnon carried out her fieldwork between 1979 and 1983, and her account of contrastive forms of marriage in Tanimbar was published in 1992. She has also written a number of articles on the Tanimbarese art of what may be termed the precolonial period, offering insights into the richness of meaning and symbolism such artifacts possess.

In 1992 there were three large exhibitions of Indonesian art presented both in the Netherlands and in the United States to coincide with the “Year of Indonesia 1992.” One of these exhibitions, Beyond the Java Sea, dealt exclusively with the art of the “outer islands”, that is, those areas that were not directly or significantly under the influence of the great court cultures of Indonesia. The exhibition included a large number of works from Tanimbar and other islands in Maluku Tenggara, and brought the past artistic production of the Tanimbarese and their neighbours to a wider audience.

Annamiek Lenssen’s doctoral thesis of 1993 is the first study to my knowledge which deals with contemporary rather than “traditional” Tanimbarese art, focusing on the woodcarving industry in the village of Tumbur, and the social and economic ramifications of the work of these artists. However, as Lenssen herself notes, the art of carving is not only confined to Tumbur. Thus, the intention of this study is to take in a broader range of works from throughout the Tanimbarese archipelago, and to supplement the work of Lenssen on contemporary art-forms in Tanimbar, and to provide a broader picture that might tie together the work of McKinnon and Lenssen in such a way that might lead to a deeper understanding of the significance and meaning of the work of Tanimbarese artists at a time when Tanimbarese society is undergoing rapid change.