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 Baru (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.
Photo of Will Buckingham, Saumlaki 1994. © Will Buckingham
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 . 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.