Life in contemporary Tanimbar is one of a complex of interacting forces, a fact that is keenly felt by the Tanimbarese. In the early 1980s, when Susan McKinnon carried out her fieldwork in the islands, she was, she says, surprised by the extent to which both the church and the Indonesian state had penetrated all aspects of life in Tanimbar [1992. p.lO] Since the time of McKinnon’s research these twin influences have both strengthened, and it seems from my observations that what McKinnon calls the “indigenous Tanimbarese order” has further lost some of its force. It is more common to hear the ideology of the Church or expositions upon the meaning and importance of Pancasila Democracy (the Indonesian democratic programme based upon five “moral principles”) than to hear tell of Atuf, the great culture hero of Tanimbar. The strains of pop music from Irian Jaya, and the accompanying synchronised dance movements, can be much more frequently seen than can the tnabar ila’a or “great stomp dance” of which McKinnon writes. The lures of satellite television and videos of Arnold Schwarzeneggar or of cheap kung-fu films are the preferred forms of entertainment. Many Tanimbarese of an older generation bemoan the fact that their children and grandchildren are unable to speak the local languages of Tanimbar, speaking only Indonesian, and neither do they have anydesire to learn about what they see as the culture of Tanimbar.
Yet despite this, it can be seen that there is a complex of ideologies, of ideas, of ways of thought, of practices that, despite the influence of the mass media, the Indonesian state and the Church, can be seen to represent some form of “indigenous Tanimbarese order,” although it is clearly an order modified to some extent by those other cultural factors at play in Tanixnbarese society.
Against this complex background of interacting, contrasting and often conflicting strains, the Tanimbarese negotiate their lives, and it is this tapestry which forms the background to the works of the sculptors of Tanimbar. As might be expected given this diversity of cultural and ideological strands, the work of Tanimbarese sculptors exhibits a striking diversity and variety. However in this bewildering diversity of forms, there are a number of constant factors with respect to conditions of work, methods of work, and the economic framework within which Tanimbarese sculptors produce their artworks. There are also a surprising number of fundamental unities in the concepts that underlie the production of sculpture in Tanimbar.
The work of the sculptors of Tumbur differs from the pattern set in other villages for a variety of reasons. Whereas in most villages there are only one or two sculptors, if at all, in Tumbur there is a complex system of production and marketing involving, to some extent, the whole of the village. With more than eighty sculptors working in Tumbur (and this is a conservative estimate) the Tumburese inhabit a very different social and economic world from the other sculptors to whom I spoke. The subject has been given much fuller treatment by Lenssen  yet to the extent that the work of the Tumburese carvers is also the work of Tanimbarese artists, the background set out below is of limited relevance to the work of the Tumburese.
However in this section the term “Tanimbarese,” does not include those sculptors from Tumbur. This is not to claim that the sculptors of Tumbur are somehow not Tanimbarese, for they assuredly are and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise: but the style of their artistic production – the ‘school’, one might say, of which they are a part, using the term loosely – is Tumburese, first and foremost.
Sculpture in Tanimbar is practised, to my knowledge, only by men. Although there is nothing to indicate that it forbidden for women to sculpt, sculpture lacking the associations of “heat” and danger that traditionally male activities are believed to have had, perhaps a sculpting woman would be considered unseemly. McKinnon notes that female activities are generally those which are concerned with binding, weaving and recomposing (basketry, the weaving of ikat cloth, the binding together of shell armbands) whereas male activities are characterised by their differentiative powers (traditionally, the cutting of elephant tusks and the severing of heads. [McKinnon 1992 Ch.8) Carving, involving as it does a differentiating, a cutting and a severing, would seem to fall more comfortably into the preserve of men. In Tumbur women finish the work of their husbands with sandpaper and files, but they come no closer to the practice of sculpture.
Some trades in Tanimbar, such as the casting of gold or the cutting of elephant tusks, required a particular hereditary right to be practised, yet sculpture does not seem to be a trade for which there was such a monopoly [Drabbe 1940 p.172 (Ch 13)] This being the case, however, it has already been seen that there are individuals who are believed to have a hereditary ability to produce good carvings, a kekuatan mata rumah, and due to the hereditary nature of this ability, it would seem that in the past there were also such specialists.
Carving is a marginal activity in Tanimbar. There are not many sculptors throughout the archipelago, with the obvious exception of in the village of Tumbur. On the basis of the data I have collected, it would be difficult to make any firm assertions as to the number of carvers in the islands. I was told that many Tanimbarese actually could carve, but most of them had little cause, time or inclination to do so. Many sculptors are also reluctant to reveal themselves as such, either for fear that their designs may be “stolen through the eyes” (curi mata) or through excessive modesty. However I would propose as a rough estimate for the number of Tanimbarese sculptors (outside of Tumbur) working on a fairly regular basis as around twenty five. This is admittedly a very low incidence, yet the work of the sculptors of Tanimbar is of value not only in the extent of the phenomenon nor in the technical quality of the work itself (which anyway is highly variable) but in the way that the multiplicity of forms of Tanimbarese sculpture reflects, in a direct and vivid way, the complexity of the society of which it is a product.
Economically the work of sculptors played a similar role for virtually all Tanimbarese sculptors. Only one sculptor, Matias Fatruan, had ever relied upon sculpture a a main means to livelihood. Due to a fall from a coconut palm in the 1960s in which he lost the use of both of his legs, Matias Fatruan found himself unable to work in the plantation (kebun), as do most Tanimbarese. He turned to sculpture and goldsmithing as a means to income. Now his family is old enough to work in the kebun which provides both staples, and a cash income through the twice yearly copra crop, he is producing sculpture less frequently and no longer works in gold. Matias Fatruan is the exception to the general pattern in which sculpture is used as an irregular, but not at times unlucrative, means to earning money.
It was difficult to collect precise data on the standard prices of sculptures sold by these artists to fellow Tanimbarese, perhaps because such a standard does not exist. However the price of small private devotional work, for example a Holy Family group, with a height of around thirty centimetres would perhaps range from 5,000Rp to 10,000Rp (around US$2.50-US$5.00 at the time of writing) whereas a large crucifix for a church might, if bought rather than donated cost about 200,000Rp (approximately US$100) or above. If such a large scale work were donated, the commissioning individual or body would be expected to provide as a “gift” sufficient compensation to make up for the time lost in the kebun, usually a sack of rice, or the monetary equivalent, about 25,000Rp (US$12.50). Sales of works to outsiders is often subject to much more widely divergent price ranges, and the types of sculpture that outsiders are expected to buy are different to those that are made for internal sale.
Very few Tanimbarese could understand my interest in contemporary religious (Christian) art, as this is an artform produced specifically for consumption within Tanimbar. External purchasers tend to buy works which relate to a “history” of Tanimbar. The characteristics of this history will be discussed later in the study, but these works are what the Western art market might call “traditional.” In most areas except Tumbur price is dependent upon perceived ability to pay. My perceived ability to pay gave rise to prices somewhat higher than for the devotional works mentioned above. For example a small contemporary sculpture made from bone, approximately ten centimetres in height, was offered to me with a starting price of 500,000Rp (US$250) but this price came down to about half this before the offer of sale was withdrawn. In another case, prices between 250,000Rp (US$125) and 20,000Rp (US$10) were quoted to me by different commentators for a fifty centimetre wooden sculpture. The highest price was quoted by the sculptor, and this provoked angry reactions as it was seen to be a highly inflated price. Thus the work which others in the village had earlier praised as priceless was then denigrated as worthless. “You can’t eat a sculpture, it’s a waste of money,” they said, not without contempt.
A contemporary sculpture (c. 1995) from Tanimbar. Image © Will Buckingham
A greater proportion of the sculptors I met with work to order negotiating each commission separately rather than producing works to stockpile for later sale. Sculpture is produced in times of financial need or, for example, if the kebun fails to yield a sufficient crop upon which to live, and then sold in Saumlaki to Indonesian Chinese traders or, on occasion, direct to tourists.
The church is one of the major patrons of sculpture within Tanimbar, and a number of Catholic churches possess indigenously produced works. Furthermore a number of other commissions by the church have gone to Tanimbarese sculptors, for example the monumental works outside the churches of Olilit Lama and Olilit Barn by Stanislaus Fenyapwain, the boat-altar of the church of Olilit Lama also by Stanislaus Fenyapwain, and the monument in Sifnana attributed to “the people of Sifnana under the direction of Pastor Egging.” It is difficult to ascertain, almost twenty years after the construction of this monument whether the rather splendid design is that of Pastor Egging himself or that of an artist from Sifnana. There are also monumental works outside the church of Alusi Batjasi, but these are imported from Ambon, as are a large proportion of the sculptures within Tanimbarese churches.
Another source of work for sculptors is in the production of carvings related to nationalist concerns and ideologies. An example is the complex of works in the SMA (High School) Budi and in the SMP (Middle School) Santa Paulus in Saumlaki. The primary school in Sifnana also has a work that could been seen to exhibit both Christian and Nationalist tendencies, depicting Christ with a schoolchild in the red and white uniform (red and white being the colours of the Indonesian flag) of Indonesian primary schoolchildren.
Direct sale to tourists is, for most Tanimbarese sculptors, erratic, although a number of sculptors have been lucky enough to receive mass orders from Western buyers and collectors. However, in general, the infrequency of tourists in the more isolated areas of Tanimbar means that for many sculptors, the costs of travelling to Saumlaki, where most of the tourist activity is centred, is prohibitive. At the time of writing this was approximately 10,000Rp or US$5 for the return trip from Sera or the area around Alusi and Meyano where a number of sculptors are based. The cost of the bus trip from Tumbur to Saumlaki is only 1,000Rp for the round trip (about US$0.50) and so for the Tumburese the journey is much more viable. Also given the mass-produced nature of the Tumburese’ work in contrast to the one-off sculptures of artists elsewhere, it is difficult for many sculptors to compete with the often much lower prices of the Tumburese.
A final source of custom is from individuals who may request a devotional or nationalist work to be sculpted for their homes, or a particular rukun (literally “pillar”: a social or work division) may commission a piece. An example of this is in the work of Raphael Labobar in Meyano Das, who has produced figures of Saint Visensius and Saint Francis for two such rukun.
The question of the relationship between social class and the art of sculpture within Tanimbar could not be answered without a good deal of further research into the social background of many of the villages where I worked. As Drabbe notes, sculpture is not the prerogative of any particular mata rumah, and so carving, unlike work in gold and ivory, is not necessarily perceived as a noble activity. However a number of sculptors whom I interviewed clearly were members of “named” houses, and hence it seems that there is nothing ignominious or ignoble about the production of sculpture. In Tumbur carving is carried out by those of all social classes, but it is difficult to ascertain if this is the case elsewhere. I would suggest that if indeed there were a relationship between social class and the production of sculpture it is tenuous.
Despite the scattered nature of the the sculptors of Tanimbar, living in widely distanced geographical locations, and the diversity of their work, they all have a similar background of social and economic conditions. In addition to this social and economic background, there is a background of concepts and ideologies, a unity of ways of thinking, which unites the works of the often idiosyncratic and individual sculptors of Tanimbar into an overall pattern. It is to these concepts that this study will now turn.