Centuries before Christianity and Islam came to the Malay Archipelago — the scattering of thousands of islands north of Australia and south of Southeast Asia — the most common spiritual practice was ancestor worship. The people of the Indo-Pacific islands understood and accepted the concept of God. But in their daily lives, the subject of veneration were their own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
The new exhibit at Yale University Art Gallery, "East of the Wallace Line: Moumental Art From Indonesia and New Guinea," of artifacts from the eastern portion of the archipelago, is dominated by remnants of this religious belief.
"These societies did talk of God. It was very prominent in Indonesia that divinity was seen as a division of male and female. The female was represented by the earth, fertility, harvest, and the male as the sky," said Ruth Barnes, the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the museum. "But there are very few representations of divinity. Ancestors were like saints in the Catholic church. They are intermediaries, links between humans the divine."
So people kept carved wooden ancestor figures in their homes, in their temples, in common areas of the village, sometimes in male-and-female pairs, sometimes tiny, sometimes big, almost always nude with exaggerated genitalia to show the gender, sometimes with arms open wide, as if to welcome all the prayers and demand even more. They were prayed to, sacrificed to, even fed.
"In the traditional context, people pour palm wine on the ground in front of the ancestors, and add some dry fish or rice and ask the ancestors to take part in the meal," Barnes said. "It's very important that the ancestors are treated well. If they don't, they will retaliate, with illness, or the crops won't grow well.
"It's an appealing way to look at the past," she said. "The past is part of who we are."
Even after islanders' widespread conversion to Christianity and Islam, ancestor worship still was practiced side-by-side with the new religions. It was suppressed in the '70s and '80s, because the government disapproved of the old ways. Attitudes, however, are more accepting now, and ancestor worship is tolerated again, Barnes said.
The exhibit, in a fourth-floor gallery at the New Haven museum, complements the permanent exhibit of Indo-Pacific art in the Kubler-Thompson Gallery on the third floor. Many of the more than 120 objects in the "Wallace Line" exhibit are too tall to fit in the low-ceilinged gallery downstairs. They are, as the exhibit title proclaims, "Moumental Art." These include extraordinary, large-scale ritual flags, offering posts used to present gifts to God and ancestors, and a marvelous carved wooden horse with two human figures seated on top.
The third-floor exhibit contains artifacts from all around the Indo-Pacific area. The fourth-floor show confines itself to islands east of the Wallace Line. The imaginary line, meant as an ecological divide, was drawn in 1859 by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to separate islands whose animals had their origins in Asia and those island whose animals originated in Australia. The artworks come from islands in modern-day Indonesia and New Guinea.
Thomas Jaffe, Yale class of 1971, owns the collection that makes up the exhibit and endowed the curatorial chair that Barnes holds. Jaffe, a former editor at Forbes who now runs a marketing, design and branding company Eight Communications, got interested in Indo-Pacific art, ironically, by visiting a country far, far away from southeast Asia.
"Between my sophomore and junior year in college, like so many of my era, I hitchhiked overseas. I saw these girls on the beach in Greece wearing sarongs from the island of Sumba. They looked really great. The sarongs, too," he said, laughing. "When I had a chance in the ensuing years, I wanted to find out what this stuff was all about."
Jaffe said the works as a whole represent "a kind of artistic language that stretches litertally thousands of miles," not just throughout eastern Indonesia but further east, through Micronesia and Melanesia.
"What fascinated me about this culture is that it is water-borne. ... These are folks who navigated across vast stretches of ocean to get from one place to another and brought with them not just objects but also ideas," said Jaffe.
One artifact, a geometrically patterned woman's hat, comes from the Bajau tribe, an intriguing subculture that is water-borne full time, living nomadically in boats and in houses built on stilts in the water.
The rest of the relics are from more settled tribes from the islands, and include garments, utensils, hair combs, food containers, ceremonial shields, masks, whips, swords, spears and other remnants of daily life, dating between the 17th and 19th centuries. Most of the non-textile works are carved out of wood. Some are made of rattan, bone, tortoise shell, shells, animal teeth and horns, horsehair, cassowary feathers and porcelain, or are accented with those materials.
Some artifacts reflect the importance of buffalo in these worlds; the animals were signs of fertility, wealth and prestige. Patterns of interlocking buffalo horns are featured on several pieces and buffalos are depicted on granary doors, which covered rice-storage areas. Other granary doors are decorated with breeasts, to indicate that the house is where women work.
The people of the islands enjoyed a healthy economy, trading in the items found in their worlds, including spices, sea cucumber, coconuts, sandalwood, peppers, beeswax, tortoise shell and especially bird of paradise feathers, which were in great demand as luxury items. These items were sometimes used to create works for themselves: gorgeous coconut-shell spoons, utensils made from buffalo horn, an exquisite tortoise shell hair comb decorated with stylized roosters and deer.
To help visitors navigate the exhibit, a colorful and detailed iPad app — designed by Jaffe's firm Eight Communications — is available on 10 iPads in the gallery. "Something like this needed context. Who has heard of these cultures outside of academia?" Barnes said. "They're not a household word. I wanted context but I didn't want to plaster the walls with photos."
As for those walls, frequent visitors to the Yale museum will find that the gallery housing the "Wallace Line" exhibit looks different than usual.
"The is the first time the gallery walls have not been white. It always was full of modern and contemporary displays. White looked right," Barnes said. "These are from very traditional societies. ... White wasn't an option. The green is to show that these cultures are surrounded by the sea."
Yale University Art Gallery is opening another new show this week: "Roman In The Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire," a collection of mosaics, ceramics, sculpture, glass, textiles, coins and jewelry from the most remote reaches of the Roman Empire: Britain, Gaul, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia. It will open Aug. 22 and run to Jan. 4, 2015.
EAST OF THE WALLACE LINE: MONUMENTAL ART FROM INDONESIA AND NEW GUINEA is at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. in New Haven, until Feb. 1. artgallery.yale.edu.Copyright © 2015, CT Now