The sculpture of Tanimbar exhibits a remarkable complexity and variety of forms, which can be seen as a reflection of a corresponding diversity of dynamic cultural forces at play in the life of the Tanimbarese. The challenge for the Tanimbarese – as they perceive it – is to renegotiate the relationship between those forces they see as external to Tanimbar and moderen, and those which they see as internal and tradisional, and hence bring about the transformation of tradition such that it no longer holds up aspirations toward material and spiritual development. On the other hand this tradition must, to qualify as tradition, have the illusion of remaining untransformed, unchanging and fixed.
The work of Tanimbarese gives a vivid example of the way in which this transformation is effected. Generally speaking, in accordance with the Indonesian state ideology of Unity in Diversity, the problem of the present is being solved by the preservation of the external signs of tradition in their own right, while the structures that supported them in the past either fall away or are deliberately dismantled. It is these structures and the dynamics that interrelate and animate them which the Tanimbarese refer to when they say, “We want to develop, but tradition is too strong.” When fundamental modes of thought and of being once rooted in indigenous ideology are replaced by those which are no longer rooted in indigenous ideology, but are rather orientated toward nationalist and Christian ideologies and aspirations, the symbols of tradition float free, disembedded from society.
The work of Tanimbarese sculptors is not only a passive reflection of these changes, but also has an active role to play in bringing it about. Moderen sculptures try to deal with the problems of reconciling the tradisional and the moderen for the Tanimbarese themselves, and an identity as tradisional is only maintained by taking the symbols of a disembedded tradition, and representing them back the outside world. Thus the tradisional sculpture of the Tanimbarese, and more importantly the existence of an audience for such demonstrations of tradition, plays an essential role in maintaining an idea of tradition.
Tanimbarese sculptors are not at the mercy of overwhelming impersonal forces overturning their culture. Instead they are reordering the relationships between tradition and modernity, memory and aspiration, history and the present, themselves and the outside world, and in doing so, attempting to achieve what is the best of all possible worlds, and to speed their advance towards a better future. The ancestors are, it would seem, being shown the back door, taken from their positions of power by various stages, and the law that they laid down, that of adat, being replaced by the Pancasila, the Ten Commandments, the proclamations of the church and the state. Yet the ancestors accumulate, the present becomes the past, and the living die. Earlier in this study the case of a sculpture produced in the 1970s which over time accrued ancestral power to become an adat good was cited. So what was moderen becomes tradisional, todays innovation becomes tomorrow’s rule, and the present remains, as ever, the unsatisfactory home of a struggle between the idea of the past, and of what the future could be. Sculpture is a well established battlefield for this conflict, and it is a conflict that seems to be ultimately beyond resolution. As Tanimbarese wrestle with new pasts and new futures the future of sculpture in Tanimbar seems as assured as is its past.