4. Images and Power

It is clear that in the past the image was seen as the repository, the agency or the mediator of power: the tavu was the site where contact with the ancestors of the house would be made; the kora ulu was the representation of the dangerous power of the crew of warriors, as the boat roared its passage through the waves, and the walut was the residence of the power of the ancestors. It is worth considering here to what extent this is still the case, what the relationship between the image and power is in Tanimbar today, and the nature of the power which it contains or mediates. Older carvings still extant in Tanimbar, which are classed as adat goods, that is, goods that are seen to have a connection with the complexities of Tanimbarese ritual law, are seen as both containing and condensing the power of the ancestors. One type of these carvings, a small form of walut, is the luvu dalam. In the past it would be the luvu dalam that would be used in the hunt, in the enactment of dangerous and “hot” male tasks, and in warfare. Warfare is uncommon today in Tanimbar, although it has not entirely died out, and much of the traditional intervillage rivalry is played out not on the battlefield but, as McKinnon notes, on the football-pitch. However the luvu dalam still has a role to play in ensuring footballing success, something that is taken very seriously indeed in Tanimbar. The Marsele mata rumah of Tumbur possess a particularly potent luvu dalam which may only be seen by the head of the household. For anyone else to see it would, I was told, spell instant death. The Marsele family expressed a willingness to show it to the curious, but only after the signing of a disclaimer. No-one has yet been brave enough to go through with this. On the death of the head of the household the ritual right to see the luvu dalam passes to his successor. According to a widespread story in Tumbur, some years ago, the Tumburese team were heading to a football match with the village of Atubul, which lies some miles to the north. They had with them the Marsele luvu dalam, and were as a result, one may imagine, confident of their success. On the way they passed a young woman from the village of Sangliat Dol who was washing her face by a well. As they passed, there was a breeze, and the dangerous “heat” of the luvu dalam was taken up by the wind and struck her full on. She instantly fell dead. It is for the same reason that the luvu dalam is stored in the rafters at the house at the West end during the season of the wind from the west (musim barat) and is transferred to the Eastern end of the house when the east wind begins to blow again (musim timur). This prevents the members of the household having to risk illness or death by being subjected to the heat of the sculpture.

The source of this heat is the power of the ancestors, contained within the luvu dalam. For this reason, it is only the head of the mata rumah, ritually the closest to the power of the ancestors, and possibly also the closest himself to becoming an ancestor of significance, who can withstand the awesome power of the luvu dalam. Other luvu dalam are not considered by their owners to be as powerful as that owned by the Marsele mata rumah.

Another manifestation of the power of adat goods is in the widely attested phenomenon of sculptures which return by themselves to their place of origin. Throughout Tanimbar I was told that if adat sculptures were stolen or were bought (generally by Western collectors or by Indonesian Chinese traders) without the correct ritual observances to divest them of their hot and dangerous power, then they would return to their place of origin, much to the chagrin their unlucky purchasers as they opened their packing cases to find them empty. Those who sell goods such as these without observing the proper ritual also themselves risk illness and death. Buyers are therefore advised to go through the process of a mandi adat (ritual law “bathing”) during which the ancestors are asked for their approval and are offered palmwine.

It is clear from the above that the power of the luvu dalam or of other adat goods cannot be considered a property of the images themselves: by the proper ritual observances the images can be divested of their power. Rather it is the case that the images act as the site and the mediator of the power of the ancestors which they represent. They are not the sources of power, for the ancestors themselves are the sources of power, but instead repositories for this power, and it is this that makes them dangerous. In general contemporary images, those without a historical connection with the Tanimbarese past, are not seen as having the same kind of potency. They have little connection with the ancestors, and generally the kind of power that they mediate or manifest is different from that of the luvu dalam or of adat goods.

There is a widespread belief throughout Tanimbar that portraiture is a dangerous activity although I could not find anyone who could provide an adequate explanation as to why this should be the case. A number of artists told me that they had produced portraits only to find that the sitter had become ill, or even died, as a direct result. Some sculptors asked for disclaimers to be signed before portraits were produced. The fear or portraiture stands in a marked contrast to the attitude of the Tanimbarese to photography, for which they have a great enthusiasm. It seems here that the power of portraiture is (in contrast to the power of the luvu dalam) a property of the artwork itself, or of the act of representing: portraits are per se dangerous, by virtue of being portraits. Why this should be the case for hand-made portraits but not for photographs is uncertain.

Another way in which ideas of power and of the image are related is in the work of those carvers who produce images for devotional use: largely crucifixes and figures of the Virgin Mary in the role of intercessor. In accordance with the teachings of the Catholic church devotional images are seen as a helpful means to mediating between Man and God. The images of the Virgin Mary are seen as pointers to meditation that lead one’s mind toward thoughts of the Mother of God who intercedes for mankind. The Tanimbarese are quick to point out that they do not “worship stones or statues” as do, so they claim, Hindus and Buddhists (between whom the Tanimbarese make no clear distinction). The devotional sculpture of Tanimbar is not seen a divine or as possessing any power in its own right. Instead it acts as the means to mediating an attaining contact with divine power itself.

There are two more cases which are of interest with respect to the interrelationships betweer power and the image in Tanimbar. The first is in the work of Abraham Amelwatin of Alusi Krawain. He attributed his talent to the power of his ancestors. His ability to carve was, he claimed, a kekuatan mata rumah. As has been already seen, the mata rumah is a house complex of noble (“named”) houses and their affiliated commoner (“unnamed”) houses. It might also be added that the mata rumah may also comprise the ancestors which were represented at one time by the tavu and which are seen as the source both of the named houses and of their unnamed “offspring.” The Indonesian term kekuatan can be translated as strength, force or power. Thus the whole suggests the power or the force of the house-complex which itself consists of the massed weight of the ancestors and their present-day descendants. The kekuatan mata rumah is an hereditary power and it confers upon its possessor a particular ability. This may be the ability to sing, to settle disputes with the aid of particular roots and plants, to attract others to oneself, to carve, or to cast spells. A number of sculptors claimed that their ability was the result of such a power, and at least one other (Damianus Marsele in Tumbur) indicated that this had some repercussions, particularly for those who he felt were copying his work who did so, “at their own risk.” But it was in the work of Abraham Amelwatin that the connection between the power of the ancestors and the work which through the agency of their descendant was the product of this power was strongest. Other sculptors who made the claim of an ability to carve based upon the massed strength of their forbears did not require any special treatment of works before passing them to the buyer, yet the works of Abraham Amelwatin were treated effectively as adat goods, that is, they required a mandi adat before they could be handed over to the buyer, as if they were heirloom valuables. He explained that throughout the carving process, which had to be undertaken in a state of great calm, the ancestors were guiding his hand, and that through their intervention the work became “hot” (panas). Thus before surrendering the work to the buyer the ritual cooling of the mandi adat had to be undergone. This required the exchange with a bottle of sopi (palmwine) with a small sum of money as a “cork” (sumbat) and, if avaliable, a pair of “male” gold earrings (loran) which would serve to make the adat transaction ‘weightier’. The last is not any more an absolute requirement as it might once have been for such transactions, due to the sale of much adat gold to outside buyers. After the offerings are made, the ancestors are asked for their approval, and they answer through the mouths of the constantly chattering house-lizards (cecak) that are an inevitable part of life in the Tanimbars. Only after such approval has been granted will Abraham Amelwatin surrender the work that he and his ancestors have carved in partnership.

The second case is that of the transformation of contemporary carvings into “adat goods” over time. I was only given one instance of this, by the Batlijeri family of Olilit Baru. Simon Batlijeri had made a sculpture perhaps some twenty years ago, and had remained the property of the family ever since. However just recently, I was told, it had began to exhibit strange qualities which would normally be more appropriate to adat goods. In particular babies in close proximity to the work would begin to cry, even if they were normally placid and calm children. The work had, I was told, become antik, an Indonesian word literally meaning “antique”, but which is usually applied to adat goods. Thus with the passage of time, and the accumulation of the ancestors, objects once empty and created for adornment begin to accumulate the frightening and potentially deadly heat of the forbears of the house.

The interrelationships between ideas of power and of what the image is in Tanimbar are, to a large extent, dependent upon the type of image itself – there is no theory which pertains to the image in a general sense, but only those which pertain to different classes of images. Yet ideas of power and of the image are often closely linked and interact in a wide variety of ways.