6. Past, Present, Future: Time, Art and History in Tanimbar

Through the study of a wide cross-section of Tanimbarese carving, it has become appan that underlying the diversity of forms there is a binding and ordering set of ideas and principles. Talk of sculpture in Tanimbar inevitably tends towards conversation about history. It is Tanimbarese ideas of history that the contradictory and conflicting natures of different forms sculpture are collapsed into a unity that contains them, however temporarily, tenuously – and possibly even dangerously.

In Tanimbar, history is generally seen as divided into three broad ages. In different parts of the archipelago, and when conversing with different speakers, these ages were talked about using differing terminology; yet the general pattern remains surprisingly constant. Very frequently the Tanimbarese will only talk of two ages, yet in the more distant past there is always a third, which they often find difficult to speak of. The reason for this difficulty shall become clear. It should al be noted that a fourth age is often added to bring the whole to completion, particularly in Protestant areas, and this is the coming age of Christ, of the Kingdom of Heaven, expected to begin, by many Tanimbarese, in the year two thousand. There is however no eschatological art in Tanimbar, and the hopes or fears of this fourth age are not directly expressed in the sculpture of the Tanimbarese.

This section will set out the general characteristics of these three ages in broad terms and consider how this overall scheme of history is conceived. This will be followed by consideration of the way this particular structuring and conception of history is seen to influence the present, presenting both opportunities for growth, and rooting the Tanimbarese in the past, a conception of history both liberating and constricting. Then the work of Tanimbarese carvers will be examined in if light of these ideas concerning the meanings and significance of the passage of time within Tanimbar.

For the purposes of this study, I will use the terminology that was used by Matias Fatruan of Rumahsalut in Sera, who gave one of the most extended expositions upon Tanimbarese ideas of history, and for whom this history is perceived as a living force more sharply than for many other sculptors. However the same sets of ideas and beliefs informed the work of other sculptors and the lives of the Tanimbarese with whom I spent time, and I shall use these term in perhaps a broader sense than they were first described to me, so that they can contain the diversity of data collected. Matias Fatruan called the three ages the jaman purba (ancient age), the jaman pertengahan (middle age) and the jaman moderen (modern age).

Matias Matias Fatruan. Image copyright Will Buckingham.

Myths are not very frequently told today in Tanimbar, yet a consideration of Tanimbarese myth will serve to illuminate the characteristics of the first two of these ages, and suggest thc nature of the relationship between them. The most tremendous event in the history of Tanimbar must have been the fateful coming of Atuf and his three sisters. Atuf was a nobleman, perhaps from the island of Babar to the West of Tanimbar, and he came to Tanimbar as a result of a grave insult to his noble lineage. The place he found must have been very different from the island it is today. Drabbe was given the following description of theplace:

At this time, the sky was low, so low, that the sun could not come up. Sometimes it appeared on the eastern horizon, but since it was much larger than it is now, and – above all – the sky much lower, it had to remain on the horizon and the people made of of this time to eat and fetch water, firewood, provisions, because later the sun went away again, and it remained night for a long time; there were still no moon or stars yet. [Quoted in McKinnon 1983]

This was a time when all was in a state of undefinition and flux. There was no clear distinction between earth and sky, the earth was folded in upon itself, and even male and female were not yet split apart, so that the sister of Atuf had “taboo parts” that were “half man-half woman”. At this time, I was told, men went naked and had the heads of animals, or they had two heads, sometimes more. Others were graced with horns, fur or tails. Even the human and the animal were not yet distinct The moon was contained within the sun and the sun was contained within the horizon, thus the motion of the days and the months ad not yet begun. The jaman purba thus stood outside of time, and time itself did not exist. Thus perhaps to speak of it as an age at all is wrong, for there was nothing to define it as such, and it is this lack of definition that makes it difficult to speak of.

The coming of Atuf and of Inkelu his androgynous sister, was to change all this. By wile or by virtue the nobleman acquired a magical lance which held the power to split apart the capes and the mainland, to open up springs by striking the ground, and to bring into being the beginning of time.

Seeing the sorry state of Tanimbar, Atuf took it upon himself to perform the ultimate act of separation: to spear the sun into pieces, and so he set out by boat to the east with his spear in pursuit of this goal. On nearing the sun, some say he rubbed his body in coconut milk to protect himself from the searing heat, and that he sheltered in the shade of a plank through which he had bored a hole. When he was close enough, he hurled the spear into the sun, and it burst apart into a myriad of shards. A large part flew off and became the moon, the tiny fragments became the stars, and the sun, now lighter perhaps, was able to rise for the first time.

The motion of the sun had begun, and hence that of day and night. The moon too now began to mark the passing of the months and the seasons. In thrusting his spear into the glowering furnace of the sun, Atuf had achieved no less than the bringing time itself into being.

Thus began the middle ages of Tanimbarese history. Sadly neither Atuf nor Inkelu were around to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Inkelu was, some say, beheaded, and Atuf, on returning from the east, turned to stone due to inadvisedly defecating on a taboo island.

The action of Atuf shattered the once stagnant and unfertile unity of the world, and set in motion a radical mobility for which he paid dearly by being converted to a state of radical fixity. Peoples were scattered in great migrations, and what was a chaos of inactivity was replaced by a chaos of activity. The forces of change and growth were unchecked but eventually the migrating populations settled into villages and there arose a cultural order that contained these dynamic forces within a unity that was, unlike the unity of the jaman purba, able to encompass the dynamics of growth, yet also able to forge a stability in time and space. This unity was that of the jaman pertengahan.

So what characteristics did this age have? Firstly it stood in stark contrast to the jaman purba. Whilst the earlier age was one of an overbearingly oppressive natural order, there being no culture at that time, the jaman pertengahan was the age of an overbearingly cultural order. This was an age in which the power of the ancestors and of adat ritual law controlled the forces of life and death, and the very forces of nature. It should be noted that Atuf himself, who ushered in this age, was a cultured individual. He was a mela, a nobleman. By the skillful use of his miraculous lance he was responsible for the unfolding of the enclosed and claustrophobic character of the natural world. The cultural order of the jaman pertengahan was so strong that it could exert control over the natural order. The weather, success in the hunt, and calm seas could all be attained by cultural means.

This time was also that of the great works of Tanimbarese art from the past. The tavu, the ten lur, the tnabar ila’a dance, all these are rooted in the jaman pertengahan. The middle ages of Tanimbarese history were the site of Tanimbarese culture and identity. In this time there lived the great culture heroes of Tanimbar, for example So’u Melatunan who followed the Portugis (i.e. the Dutch: see below) to Banda, Ambon and Batavia, now present day Jakarta, and returned home with a great stock of valuables including a number of gold valuables, and “one hundred and sixty elephant tusks.” [McKinnon 1983 pp.129-131]

Yet these great and glorious times were not to last, but were to be replaced by a third age, that of the modern. The jaman moderen may have begun to dawn in 1910 in Tanimbar when the first Catholic missionaries established themselves on the islands, but it was not until 1945 that it was truly brought to fruition, with the departure of the occupying army of the Japanese from Tanimbar, and the coming of Indonesian Independence.

The jaman moderen is a time of development, progress, and, perhaps most importantly, “religion.” The Tanimbarese talk of the time before the jaman moderen as being “before religion came [to Tanimbar]” (sebelum agama masuk). The former beliefs of the Tanimbarese are not considered – and this is in line with the teachings of the Indonesian state – as religions. The five religions recognised by the Indonesian state are Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, although the Tanimbarese enumerate a different list: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The last two are, perhaps, grudgingly accepted into the ranks of religion by the Tanimbarese, as the past is often talked of as being “Hindu.” On inquiring as to the meaning of this (there was certainly never any formal Hinduism on Tanimbar) it is explained that “Hindu” means “without religion.” Thus in the jaman moderen, the old Tanimbarese order in which the ancestors are all powerful, is replaced by a new Christian order in which the Christian God is all-powerful.

The jaman moderen is seen as being different socially, culturally, and, most importantly, materially, from the previous ages. Modernity is wealth, and the jaman moderen is the age of wealth, progress (kemajuan) and happiness promised by the propaganda of the Indonesian state and by the tantalising glimpses of life in the West offered by the mass media. This present age may have its future fulfilment in the year two thousand, although many Catholic Tanimbarese are not so bold in stating this as are the Protestants. In this time the dead will rise up, the sick be cured, and there will be no more poverty. This shall be the end of time, bringing the entire historical progression, from darkness and confusion, through the heroic antics of Atuf until the coming of “religion”, and its ultimate fulfilment in the Kingdom of Heaven, to completion.

A few further notes need to be made before examining in a little more detail the relationship of this scheme of history to the present, and the troubling problem of why, if Tanimbar is in the jaman moderen, the age of religion, wealth and development, life is still so clearly unsatisfactory, and unlike it is seen to be in the West. These ages of history are not without some overlap. The jaman purba exists before, and hence outside of time. It is not pre-temporal, for such a term contradicts itself, but rather it is atemporal. Timeis defined by the growth and change; the jaman purba lacked either, and thus cannot be said to exist within time. Yet also, if this is the case, then the jaman purba can be seen less as an age, and more as a condition or state of existence. Many people told me that the change from this chaotic age to the great age of Tanimbarese “history” was not smooth. It seems that in the midst of the early jaman pertengahan, there were pockets of the jaman purba, or of stagnation, of confusion. However, it is acknowledged by all that no longer are there in Tanimbar beings with horns or with tails, with more than one head (except the odd freak goat or pig), or such like. The jaman purba is the condition of the anomalous, and as such it may occasionally have its echoes in the present, but its hold over the world has forever, it would seem, been lost. Furthermore the jaman pertengahan can be seen as the condition of Tanimbarese culture, or of the “traditional”. The final age, the jaman moderen is the condition of modernity, of development and of progress.

Seeing these ages as conditions of existences gives time a rather lumpier and congealed quality than it is seen to have in Western culture. Time is not seen as a smooth flow, but as a number of different conditions. These conditions may themselves co-exist and interact, and the tension between these different modes of being is the subject of the next section.

One final consideration is the relationship of this idea of history with the wider history of the world. How does the Tanimbarese version relate to the two other histories which are recognised in Tanimbar: Biblical history and written history as taught in schools? Christian cosmology is based in a fundamentally different conception of time as is Tanimbarese indigenous ideology. Being an eschatological faith, it sees time as something which is bounded by limits: from “In the Beginning,” to “the Last Days.” How, for example, can the tale of the coming of Atuf be reconciled with the Book of Genesis? Firstly it should be noted that the jaman purba stands outside of time. As such it need have no relationship with the wider history of the world. It is a condition or atemporality and of chaos that is specific to Tanimbar. The jaman pertengahan is a time in which Tanimbar moves from a state of enfoldment to a state which is characterised by a moving outwards into the world, and in this age the tales of culture heroes such as So’u Melatunan who had many wily dealings with the Dutch (who in Tanimbar are known as the “Portugis.” There were actually never any Portuguese in Tanimbar.) This age is begun by the coming of Atuf, who establishes a link with the external world, and it is perhaps this more than anything else that leads to the end the enfoldment of the jaman purba, for with the coming of Atuf the external world intrudes upon the internal enclosed order, and sets it into motion. However this is an age in which relations with the outside world are very much seen as being on Tanimbarese terms. The outside world is something into which the Tanimbarese move, and they bring back riches, wealth and greatness. Tanimbar is still a bounded entity.

Only with the coming of the jaman moderen does Tanimbar actually surrender some of its identity to become a part of something larger and infinitely greater: the Indonesian state, the body of the Church and a part of the world as a whole. With the beginning of the modern age, Tanimbar gives up its special conditions (although clearly the battle is not yet won) so that it may enter into the world community and the temporal flow of World History, and hence becomes in the jaman moderen no longer a centre around which the world is structured, but rather a place on the periphery upon which the centralised forces of the outside world act.

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