12. Appendix: Selling History - New Patterns in Tanimbarese Art

It may seem somewhat perverse to relegate two thirds of the sculptors within Tanimbar to an appendix whilst the main text of this study concentrates on the final third. However there are a number of reasons why this seems to me to be not only acceptable, but also necessary. The work of the sculptors of the village of Tumbur, which is the subject of this appendix, has been discussed in great detail by Annamiek Lenssen in her thesis “Main Tangan” It is not my intention to repeat her work here. Although much of what follows is based upon and owes a debt to the work of Lenssen, the reading of Lenssen has been supplemented by some independent fieldwork in the village. Tumbur presents a rather special case in the sphere of Tanimbarese art, and hence does not fit comfortably into the patterns set out in the main body of this work. This is not surprising given the very different conditions in which the Tumburese artist works.

Lenssen’s work will be summarised insofar as it is relevent to the main theme of this study, and then a brief consideration of the ways in which Tumburese art differs from the general Tanimbarese pattern will be given. Without further research into the way the Tumburese live in and construct their ideas of history, and in particular the ways they represent their history to the outside world, these comments must suffice.

All Tumburese sculptors with whom I spoke produced work which was intended for external sale to tourists. They claim Tumbur to hold a “traditional monopoly” over the production of sculpture within Tanimbar, and hence their work, they maintain, represents the true tradition of Tanimbarese art as a whole. The tenability of this claim is called into question by other evidence.

In the representation of this “tradition,” the Tumburese have developed an orthodoxy of style which is in stark contrast to the heterodox forms of other sculptures in Tanimbar. It is because of this stylistic orthodoxy that it becomes possible to talk of Tumburese art as a whole, and see it as only one possible solution to what I have termed above as the “unsatisfactoriness of the present”, amongst the many other solutions offered by the sculptors of other villages. Furthermore it is not necessarily a solution to quite the same problem, for the nature of the production of sculpture in Tumbur is such that its has had a radical effect on the restructuring of the social and economic background to life in Tumbur. In so changing the social, economic and ideological position of the artists involved, so the nature of the problem is changed. It is in the belief that the work of Tumburese sculptors is not addressing the same issues as the work of other Tanimbarese that it is considered in this section.

The Tumburese carving “industry” was begun in 1973 when the Catholic church development worker Hermann der Vries approached the carpenters of Tumbur with the proposal that they should produce works to be sold through the Catholic church. The Church and the Indonesian government (through the agency of the Dewan Kerajinan Propinsi Maluku, or Moluccan Provincial Committee for Handicrafts) have had an active role in the promotion and development of the woodcarving industry in the village, and the DKPM has had an increasing influence on carving not only commercially, but also stylistically and iconographically.

Within Tumbur there are four working groups (kelompok) which regulate quality and prices of carvings. Each group has from ten to fifteen members and they compete for larger orders, for sponsorship deals, and for the chance to promote their work at exhibitions. The kelompoks also keep sculpture in stock so they can respond to large orders rapidly. There are sculptors who work outside of these groups, but they are under pressure from kelompok heads who wish to gain fuller control over the market. One kelompok head told me, not without bitterness, that these non-affiliated sculptors sell their work on the Street to tourists “like fried peanuts,” which is not only undignified, but lowers the commercial value of the works. As kelompok heads are those more prominent members of Tumburese society, they are having some degree of success in controlling these “independent” artists.

The style of the Tumburese sculptors has an established market in the Netherlands, in Jakarta, and in Ambon. The work is characterised by a great delicacy, generally representing figures with long and delicate limbs, and usually carved from a kind of ebony (kayu arang). Although the Tumburese claim their work is an extension of the work of the precolonial period, they are in fact stylistically a long way from the complex unfolding spiral motifs of the kora ulu or the tavu. However the technical quality of these works is often considerably higher than those from other areas, where carving is often much cruder. In addition mass production in Tumbur is made possible by the economic system of the village, and hence prices can be significantly lower than for works from sculptors of other areas. However the market value rises steeply outside of Tanimbar. The example below is an approximate pricing for a 25cm figure:

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Tumbur|Ambon|Jakarta (shop)|Jakarta (airport shop)
7,500 Rp|10,000 Rp|40,000 Rp|80,000 Rp
US$ 3.25|US$ 5.00|US$ 20.00|US$ 40.00

Given the extent of woodcarving in the village of Tumbur it is an activity that involves, an in some way implicates, the whole village. The economy, having the advantage of a regular source of cash income the whole year round from the sale of sculptures, is not, as elsewhere, rooted in subsistence and the twice-yearly bonus of the cash income from the copra crop.

In around 1989, the DKPM issued a booklet called Patung (sculpture) to the carvers of Tumbur giving advice on ideal height ranges of sculptures, typical prices, preferred motifs n the part of the buyer, and methods of selling. One of the most illuminating comments in the book was that it is necessary for the sculptor not only to sell the work but also to make clear the meanings of the motifs used. A sculptor in Tumbur supplemented this by saying that they not only sold sculpture in Tumbur, but they also sold history and tradition.

It seems that in their sculpture the Tumburese are not wrestling with the forces of history, with the dynamics of fixity in tradition and growth in modernity, in the same way as their other Tanimbarese counterparts. Instead the primary concern is how Tanimbarese histories may be packaged and marketed, together with the sculptures which are the expression of them. When history becomes not something that is lived in and constantly reordered and restructured, but rather a commodity, then the work that reflects that history is not only disembedded from society as was, I claimed above, the witch of Abraham Amelwatin, but also disembodied. In representing their history to outsiders, and not only this, but in making it commercially attractive, the Tumburese are I believe beginning to base this history not on indigenous concerns, but on the whims of the market and the desires of the largely Western or Westernised buyers.

An example of this is in the DKPM booklet which advises artists that: “Differences in the anatomical forms of male and female sculptures must be clear. The sexual organs should not be seen as pornographic or unnatural.” Indeed a considerable number of Tumburese sculptures are striking for their pronounced genitalia: some sculptures depict women lifting their skirts as they ford a stream to reveal themselves in all innocence to the world, or men clutching their oversized penises. The question needs to be asked as to whether these sculptures say more about Tanimbarese concerns with history, time and change, or whether they say more about Western notions and fantasies of the “Primitive.” [See Price 1989 and Torgovnick 1990 for a discussion of “primitiveness” as a Western construct, and its influence on the work of artists from areas conceived of in the Western imagination as Primitive.]

In representing themselves thus the Tanimbarese are not solving the problem of the present discussed above. Whereas other sculptors are concerned with the defusing of their histories and their integration into the present, the Tumburese are not only constructing for themselves pasts that were never theirs – all sculptors in Tanimbar do that – but they are constructing pasts that have been dreamed of by others. In doing so they not only fail to address the problem between different levels of identification (as Tanimbarese, Christian, Indonesian) but they also lay the seeds for a tradition that is essentially moderen in that it is imposed by the outside world. What then happens to the dynamic between memory and aspiration that supports, maintains and promotes growth in the rest of Tanimbar?

Thus, the pattern of carving established by the Tumburese, for all of its sinuous beauty, is one that holds a threat of danger, as it surrenders Tanimbarese ideas of history to the outside world.