ARTS/ARTIFACTS; For Sumatra’s Warriors, Defenses Were Divine
LIVING AMONG volcanoes on the high plateaus of Indonesia, the Batak warriors of Northern Sumatra resisted invaders until the 19th century. Turbulence and isolation in a rugged island landscape helped these people shape powerful expressions of the supernatural in architectural sculpture, everyday artifacts and ritual objects.
Images of magic, death and deities are pervasive in the exhibition “Divine Protection: Batak Art of North Sumatra,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through Dec. 31, the first show in New York to focus exclusively on the art of these Southeast Asian people.
While the 19th- and 20th-century items — 70 carved doors, roof ornaments, storage chests, potion jars, weapons and jewelry — have practical functions, their forms and surface decorations reveal otherworldly concerns. In the Batak view, objects enhanced by mythical symbols invoked the assistance of the gods, adding prestige and power to those who used them.
The exotic artifacts on view range in size from a finger ring of coiled brass wire to a coffinlike wooden storage chest seven feet long. A repository for household valuables, the large box is embellished with a pair of bulging-eyed singas, creatures combining aspects of the horse, the water buffalo and the serpent-dragon. It is a recurrent image in this show.
Puppets have universal appeal, even in this culture where they are not toys or theater props but wooden funerary images. Intended to dispel the curse on those who died childless, these life-size and half-smiling si gale-gale figures (pronounced see GAH-leh GAH-leh) were carved as likenesses of the deceased. They shed realistic tears when the right strings were pulled, squeezing the wet sponges hidden behind the eyes. Mounted on wheeled platforms and colorfully dressed, they were made to dance at funerals to calm the spirits of the dead and ward off evil to the living.
The show’s prize puppet is an exquisitely chiseled head with a bird-beak nose, sad eyes, a vulnerable mouth and ears scrolled like question marks. Although missing its platform and body, which would reveal whether it is a man or a woman, the carving is one of the finest examples surviving of these relics.
Batak deities are also seen in a variety of animal sculptures on buildings and as stoppers of ritual bottles. A vigorously sculpted lizard, symbolizing fertility and regeneration, emblazons a granary door. Figures of men riding singas were whittled of wood to serve as stoppers of potion vessels containing pupuk, potent mixtures of organic substances and body fluids thought to be magical. The jars themselves added to the mystique of these ritual objects, because all were vintage ceramics imported from China, Vietnam or Japan and were rare in the Batak area.
The show’s weapons, stone sculpture, divination books and potion jars may predate the Dutch takeover of the Batak regions in Sumatra in 1838. Some may even be from the 18th century, when the Batak fought their fiercest battles against their Islamic neighbors to the north and south.
The majority of the artifacts in the exhibition reflect European influences and were probably produced after the arrival of German missionaries in 1864. With their coming, the local population was gradually converted to Christianity, a process that continued into the 1920’s.
Although diminished by then, ancient animistic beliefs lingered on in Batak art. The show’s largest singa images, a pair of heads nearly five feet tall, were carved probably in the 1920’s as beam ends to guard the entrance to a nobleman’s house. In Indonesia, the house represented the cosmos — the attic was heaven, the living quarters were the earth, and the darkened space beneath the floor was the underworld. And the singa’s association with both the upper and lower worlds reflects the ambivalence of supernatural power, which may help or hurt the living caught in between.
In a different vein, the male and female figures crowning priests’ staffs are a curious bunch, ranging from crouching thinkers to skilled acrobats, all characters in a mythological drama of incestuous twins. The relationship between a twin brother and sister, some say, is a metaphor for lightning (male) and rain (female). These elaborately carved sticks, some with finials of hair and fiber, were used in ceremonies asking for protection of the village, for warriors going to battle and for crops when there was danger of flooding or drought.
We see some parallels in our own culture,” says Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, a research assistant in the museum’s department of arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, who organized this show. “The quest for divine protection in earthly activities is certainly universal. What is less universal is the concept that the supernatural is capable of both good and evil.”
The exhibition, the first in the enlarged special exhibition gallery of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, includes works from several collections, with more than half from the Southeast Asian art holdings of Fred and Rita Richman, a gift to the museum in 1988. The rest were donated to the museum by others or were lent by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Barbier-Muller Museum in Geneva