The jaman pertengahan, the Middle Ages of Tanimbarese history, is the age of the ancestors, of a distinctively Tanimbarese way of life which embraces, as has been noted above, both the natural and the cultural orders. This ages was heralded by the coming of the nobleman Atuf with his sisters and his slaves from the island of Babar in the West, and made possible by the miraculous power of his lance which effected the severance of night and day, sea and land, male and female, and hence set into motion the dynamics of time, change and growth. [McKinnon 1983 pp. 41-42] This is the age of named culture heroes, for example the great So’u Melatunan who followed the “Portugis” (Dutch – see above) to Banda, Ambon, and eventually to Batavia, present day Jakarta. So’u returned with a great stock of valuables including a number of gold ornaments and “160 elephant tusks.” [McKinnon 1983 pp. 129-131 gives fuller details on So’u’s exploits with the Dutch.]
The jaman pertengahan is the site of the power of the ancestors, a time when the binding fabric of adat was much stronger than it is today. Indeed at this time it was adherence to or violation of adat that determined life and death. An example that was given to me was that of warfare. In the past, I was told, when the warriors of one village were to engage in battle with another village, the ritual functionary called the sori-luri would be called in to cast the augury. Sori-luri literally means “the bow of the boat.” In Tanimbar the village itself was, and to some extent still is, conceptualised as a boat, and this conceptualisation was made manifest in the sculpted stone boat platforms that once stood at the heart of certain villages, most famously Sangliat Dol, as ritual centres. Hence the sori-luri is the official who opens village meetings, and who precedes the village in the transaction of ritual business. The sori-luri would read auguries from the internal organs of the chicken, particularly the liver, and from this reading would be able to predict not only success or failure in warfare, but also the precise number of warriors of each side who would be slain. The reason he could do so with such accuracy is that adherence to adat ritual law or violation of adat could determine life and death. Thus those who had infringed the strictures of adat would die in battle, and those who had not so incurred the wrath of their ancestors would live even if ten or twenty men were to surround them with machetes. For if a warrior had not angered the ancestors, the blows would simply fail to strike home. As it was already determined who had infringed adat, thus it was also determined who would live and die. [See Drabbe p.348 (Ch. 26) for a more detailed account of the role of the sori-luri before battle. Also see Drabbe figs. 70 and 71 which show the process of augury.]
It is striking how similar accounts of this period in Tanimbarese history are across the archipelago, and there may be a number of reasons for this. There is a continuing unity in what the Tanimbarese characterise as tradisional in their lives, that is, a unity of cultural forms, beliefs and practices which are seen as being related to a specifically indigenous order, and which are both necessitated and validated by the nature of the jaman pentengahan. The continued existence of these social and cultural forms, in turn, validates this view of histroy. In this two-way dynamic, the idea of history, and the practices which both legitimise and are legitimised by it, are seen as fixed and unchanging, although they are constantly subject to renegotiation and change.
Although this tradisional order is still seen as a potent force by the Tanimbarese, and although practices and beliefs relating to this indigenous order are still both widespread and are of remarkable coherence, it is likely that since the time of McKinnon’s fieldwork in the early 1980s, which concentrates specifically on this indigenous order, it has considerably weakened. The Tanimbarese themselves recognise that this is the case, and see that both culture and nature are coming slowly in line with a moderen paradigm. It is not only due to the internal two-way dynamic that these forms have been subject to change, but also due to their interaction with and modification by cultural and social forces external to the Tanimbar islands – particularly the Indonesian state and the Church, but also by increased mobility of the Tanimbarese themselves and the increasing influence of the mass-media.
Against this background of dramatic social change, there is perhaps another factor that can account for the unity of conceptions of the jaman pentengahan (and hence Tanimbarese “tradition”) and this is the translation into Indonesian of Drabbe’s ethnography of the Tanimbar islands, Het Leven van den Tanembanees [Drabbe 1940]. Karel Mouw of Fordata’s translation has been widely circulated in the Tanimbar islands since its publication in 1981, and was well known to many Tanimbarese. Drabbe’s book is seen as the authoritative source on Tanimbarese “history”, and I was on a number of occasions given information of great detail, only to find that my informant’s source was directly from Drabbe. As the dynamics of social change and the penetration of non-indigenous cultural forms – from the doctrine of the Transubstantiation of the Host to the lures of Baywatch, from the singing of Indonesia Raya, the national anthem, to the crooning of Bryan Adams – play an ever increasingly important role in Tanimbarese life, the value of Drabbe as an authoritative source for the Tanimbarese themselves may well increase. With the breakdown of the tradisional, as it is represented from the inside, or of the Tanimbarese cultural order, as seen from the outside, over time, those Tanimbarese who seek to maintain a specifically Tanimbanese identity may find themselves relying ever more heavily upon Drabbe’s formidably detailed ethnographic account in their attempts to create, recreate and maintain this identity. As a description of the nature of the jaman pentengahan, therefore, the work of Drabbe is in the happy position of tending ever more toward absolute truth.
Being conceptualised as the site of a fixed, unchanging, and overbearingly powerful cultural order, although the ideology of the jaman pentengahan is in fact subject to modification and renegotiation, it is not surprising that the work of carvers who seek to reflect this age exhibit some measure of iconographic, if not always stylistic, unity. Not all Tanimbarese sculptors have an interest in the production of sculpture reflecting the middle ages of Tanimbarese history, for example, Yakobus Tirel of Lorwembun, and Raphael Labobar of Meyano Das only produce Christian devotional works. However for a greater number of Tanimbarese artists, this age of history is their main inspiration and subject matter. These works are in general not produced for whom I spoke emphasised that they represent a specifically Tanimbarese identity. The works of Tanimbarese sculptors concerned with the jaman pertengahan present an idea of Tanimbar to the outside world. As shall be seen, the presentation of an identity to the outside world in the work of sculptors who seek to portray the essence of the jaman pertengahan is a reversal of the function of the work of those sculptors who produce works which are concerned with the jaman moderen, works which seek to make manifest the nature and identity of the moderen world (that is the non-tradisional and hence non-Tanimbarese) to the Tanimbarese themselves. The market for those buying sculptures which speak of this time is external: to tourists and to collectors. For it is in search of the vestiges of the jaman pertengahan, the tradisional current in Tanimbarese life that tourists come to Maluku. It should be emphasised that what tourists generally are seeking, as is made clear from the tourist literature, is not only the “traditional” – songs, dances, ritual, but also the tradisional – magic, witchcraft, uniquely formed buffalo and strange goings on with the ancestors.
Although the main market for jaman pertengahan carvings is external, it is questionable whether they should be seen as “tourist arts,” a term that suggests mass production, instant availability for sale, and a rather more sophisticated manipulation of tradisional ideology for economic ends than I found. It is a simple fact that what the Tanimbarese themselves value in their history – tales of warriors, magic and heroism – is a saleable commodity; but it is not valued, primarily, for its saleability.
Carving reflecting this age of history can be divided into two broad, if overlapping classes: those that draw upon traditional iconographic patterns, and those that develop new iconographies yet still refer back to events, characters or particular characteristics of the jaman pertengahan. This division is not one that is made within Tanimbar, and is not particularly clear-cut, however it is a useful distinction to be made for the purposes of analysis.
The first category, then, can be seen as being iconographically, and to some extent stylistically, closely related to the kind of carvings produced in the precolonial era, that is before the 1920s when the production of sculpture concerned with an indigenous Tanimbarese order began to come to an end. Bearing in mind the break that occurred in the tradition of sculpture within Tanimbar, a break of at least a generation if not more, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the sources for these works. The first is still extant antik works within the Tanimbars, such as the ten lur, luvu dalam figures, and so on. Although there are not as many of these works as there once were, due to theft or to sale to Western buyers, many houses (mata rumah) still possess sculptures predating the first mission in Tanimbar. The other source is from photographs in (largely) Western produced publications, many copies of which are in circulation within Tanimbar.
These sculptures could be further subdivided into three classes: those that use old iconographic patterns as a basis but do not strictly follow the forms of past works, copies of works (normally produced to order), and fakes. Many squatting ancestor figures could be seen as occupying the first category. Their overall iconographic pattern is related to earlier Tanimbarese art, but is embellished upon and reinvented according to contemporary concerns. Copies are also occasionally made to order for Western buyers. Generally the sculptor will provide photographs or photocopies of examples, and the buyer will be able to choose one for commissioning. Many of these copies are considerably smaller than the originals, due to the limitations of cost. A number of sculptors with whom I spoke had produced tavu and kora ulu for buyers. Fakes are also made in Tanimbar: I was told that even well-known collectors had on occasion fallen for a patung mandi (bathroom sculpture), a sculpture that had been stored for a few months or years in the dankest corner of the bathroom until it looked suitably venerable for sale at an inflated price. However this is uncommon practice in general, largely because there is not enough information within Tanimbar as to the stylistic and iconographic forms of older works to produce good enough fakes. Although information on such a delicate subject as forgery is impossibly difficult to garner, I would imagine that a larger proportion of fake Tanimbarese sculptures that are available on the world market are produced not in Tanimbar, but in Ambon or even Java. Interestingly enough the market for fakes of contemporary Tanimbarese sculpture seems larger than that for traditional sculpture: in Jakarta the production of “Tumburese” figurines is big business.
It was noted above that there is an inherent contradiction between the condition of modernity and the condition of the tradisional. Sculptors who work to produce pieces which refer back (or across) to the jaman pertengahan are therefore engaging a pursuit that is to some extent fraught with difficulties. Two works will be considered to see if and how these contradictions are resolved.
The work of Abraham Amelwatin is of particular interest and significance to the problem under discussion. Before engaging in a discussion of the iconography of one of his works, his method of working, and its ritual environment must be reconsidered.
Abraham Amelwatin is able to sculpt as a result of the massed weight of his ancestors who guide his hand as he works, and who work through him. The work he produces is not only his own, but also that of the source from which he himself came. As he is the creation of the ancestors, so is the sculpture he creates. It is for this reason that he claims that he wishes to have no credit for the work he produces: he is just the culmination of those who went before him. Recalling that the three ages of history are in fact not so much bounded ages in time, but conditions of existence, or ways of being in the world, in the process of production Abraham Amelwatin actually moves out of the condition of modernity into the jaman pertengahan. In acting as the agency for the power of his ancestors, he leaves the jaman moderen and enters the Tanimbarese “middle ages”: this is only figurative if we are bound to seeing time as calendar time; but when we see time as consisting of differing (and conflicting) orders or possibilities of order, then this entry into another time becomes literal. From his initial ritual observances when he prays to the ancestors for their help in the production of the carving he is to make, he defines the process of his work as tradisional. His whole process of work is bounded by ritual, from the cutting of wood which he does individually for each sculpture rather than keeping wood in store, to the completion of the piece. Throughout the process of sculpting the work, the sculpture is ritually “hot” (panas) and dangerous. Only on completion, when the ancestors have finished their work in guiding his hand, can they be asked for their approval in handing over the sculpture through the cooling ritual of the mandi adat, which severs the link between the work and the ancestral power. This mandi adat closes that which the initial prayers begin – the ancestors are invoked, and then finally their blessing is asked and they retire from the scene.
The work of Abraham Amelwatin begins its life as being a part of the jaman pertengahan, and moves into a condition of modernity with the enactment of the mandi adat. Before this time the work obeys Tanimbarese laws – it is dangerous and “hot” – and after this time it obeys the laws of the moderen world – it is just a sculpture.
This is not necessarily the case with the work of other artists in Tanimbar. Many claim no particular ancestral presence in the process of carving, saying that their ability was attained through study, or through “natural talent” (bakat alam). However the work of Abraham Amelwatin is not, of course, untouched by contemporary concerns, and although it is the product of an “earlier” age of Tanlinbarese history, it is also moulded by the fact that its creator himself moves, as do all Tanimbarese, between the indigenous order and the modern order; and a close look at his works some extentsuggests a way in which the inherent tension between these two ways of being in the world can be resolved.
The work which will be considered is one that I have selected as much for its great beauty and technical brilliance as for any particular iconographic interest. It shows as well as any work the way in which the tension between the two states of being common in Tanimbar may reach a resolution. The sculpture represents a witch (swangi). Conditioned by Western images of witches as gnarled ladies in black hats and riding on broomsticks with scrawny black cats in tow, it will be necessary to consider the very different nature of witches in the Tanimbar islands for the contradictory nature of this sculpture to be revealed.
Witches are still, it is said, rife in Tanimbar. They are difficult to tell from others, having no particular defining marks or characteristics visible to the naked eye. However they may be known by their deeds, and their deeds are clearly malicious. The witch is at the bottom of the hierarchy of human importance, and interestingly at the top of the hierarchy of human impotence. The “weightiest” members of society are those nobles (mela) who belong to named houses which possess the most significant heirloom valuables. It is this gold that makes them weighty, rooting them in the past. Below these mela are those nobles who belong to houses with less weight to them, but who have to their name attached unnamed houses. There are constant renegotiations and reorderings of this hierarchy, but below the level of the nobles are the commoners, who are weighty only insofar as they are connected to a named house with which they have an “elder-younger brother” (adik-kakak) relationship. Below the commoners were once the slaves, although there are no longer any slaves in Tanimbar, on account of the disapproval of both the Church and the Indonesian state. The slaves are marginal and entirely unweighted. condemned just to run around on the periphery of society at their masters’ behest.
Witches too are seen as being light, insubstantial and flighty. They share with slaves a position at the bottom of the human hierarchy of being. Due to their lightness, they are able to fly from place to place and to inhabit the bodies of others. They are the antipathy of the weight of the nobles, the epitome of lightness [McKinnon 1992 pp 259-261] The particular witch in Abraham Amelwatin’s sculpture is a woman, although witchcraft is not, as it was in Western Europe, seen as being predominantly the preserve of women. She also has four arms, and a most ornate halo which is made up of the complex interlocking spirals which characterised much earlier Tanimbarese art, although she is in many ways a distinctly un-Tanimbarese creation. The source for the form of this work was a photograph or photocopy of a sculpture in stone, and it seems likely (the copy was either unavailable or lost) that the model was a Hindu or Hindu-Buddhist sculpture from one of the great court cultures of Java. It may be of recalled that the religion of the jaman pertengahan is seen by the Tanimbarese as being Hindu, which to the Tanimbarese means “without formal religion.” Thus for the production of a sculpture representing all that was bad in the jaman pertengahan, for witchcraft is also the height of undesirability if not of evil, it may be that the use of Hindu or Hindu influenced motifs was felt appropriate.
The most significant feature of this witch is that around her neck is the beautifully carved representation of an heirloom valuable. As has been seen, these valuables are seen as the epitome of weight and of fixity. What, then, are they doing around the neck of something as flimsy and insubstantial as a witch?
Heirloom valuables, or heirloom valuables of any ritual significance and weight, are today very uncommon in Yamdena. The ritual heart of the exchange networks that crisscross the Tanimbar islands is the lolat ila’a network that stretches between Fordata and Larat in the northeast to Sera in the west. The role of heirloom valuables in Yamdena is therefore not nearly as significant as it is in these other areas. Perhaps such a work as Amelwatin’s swangi could not have been produced in Sera, for it seems that in this work the heirloom valuable has been transformed from a token of fixity and weight into a sign of Tanimbarese identity. Thus the wearing of heirloom valuables signifies the witch as Tanimbarese when once it would have nonsensically signified her as a noble (mela), and there is no longer any contradiction in the work, and the sculpture therefore represents a changing idea of Tanimbareseness. The impossible pairing of witch and valuables both robs the witch of her terrifying lightness, and the valuables of their equally awesome weight and power. The gold is no longer seen as that which roots the present social order in the past, but rather it points to the existence of an identity as Tanimbarese, with a particular set of outward signs which constitute this identity. Perhaps, then, there is no more fitting indication of the way in which the outward signs of Tanimbarese culture are being disembedded from social forms and the vestiges of indigenous ideology than the witch who dons the gold for which, we may imagine, she has long yearned.
Abraham Amelwatin’s witch is an unique sculpture. Although it refers to and comments upon the jaman pertengahan , and although it is the result of a process that is itself a part of this order, the sculpture itself represents a break from this order. However, there are many works across Tanimbar that use the traditional form of the walut as an iconographic pattern. One such work is that of a mela by Stanislaus Fenyapwain. The work, carved in ebony, was performed with the use of a kitchen knife and a machete for roughing out the original form. It is a remarkably precise piece of sculpture given the limitations of the tools used. The figure combines two separate elements of earlier Tanimbarese art into a unity that is underpinned by Tanimbarese ideology. As a sculpture it is half natar (village-boat) and half walut (ancestor figurine.) The small work, some four inches high,depicts a nobleman, probably the sori-luri, sitting at with his back resting against a carved prow-board, that represents the stone seat in the centre of the village. Carved stone prow boards, the fixed analogue to the kora ulu, can still be seen in the villages of Sangliat Dol and Arui Bab. The natar which was as noted above conceptually the heart of all villages, and made concrete in the construction of the stone structures which can be seen in these two villages, affirms the fixity of the village (being of stone) but also its potential for outward motion through time (being a boat), and was hence orientated seaward. In his hands the mela holds an offering bowl, and his legs are crossed beneath him. The actual form of the figure is that of the ancestor figurines of past Tanimbarese art, but the sculpture differs from these early works. The figure wears a loincloth, whereas many walut were naked, and, unlike most walut, he bears the trappings of a Tanimbarese nobleman – the luluku armbands that show that he has taken a head in warfare and again, around his neck, a gold heirloom valuable. Although the tavu was traditionally shown with carved representations of such valuables, walut were not. The reason for the clothing of the figure in Tanimbarese dress is that the sculpture, although drawing on traditional iconography, also draws upon a narrative and descriptive approach to the Tanimbarese past. The walut, as the representation of the ancestors and the site of their power has lost much, but by no means all, of its force. This contemporary walut therefore draws upon an idealised conception of Tanimbarese tradition, and seeks to depict this. Stanislaus Fenyapwain’s sculpture represents the sori-luri sitting on his stone seat in the middle of the village, preceding the village in its ritual business. The walut is therefore given the clothing and the trappings of Tanimbareseness (for it would be unseemly and ignoble for him to squat naked in the middle of the village).
Such a walut is very different from its earlier and quite naked models. It seeks to encapsulate a specifically Tanimbarese identity, yet it lacks the inherent power of the luvu dalam and the other walut which it imitates? As such it speaks of very contemporary concerns with the importance of forging a sense of Tanimbareseness, whilst it is free of the constricting power of the tradisional, and of the ancestors which it represents.
Many other examples could be cited of the ways in which contemporary Tanimbarese art works upon the idea of the tradisional and, to some extent, robs it of its sting. In doing so it leaves the way open for the progress of the final age of Tanimbarese history, opening the door onto the jaman moderen.