In 2010 the Art Gallery of New South Wales was fortunate to acquire a collection of ancestral works of art, from present day Indonesia, as part of a bequest in honour of the collector Christopher Worrall Wilson. This generous bequest also includes his extensive library and funds for the further acquisition of Indonesian ancestral art.
An exhibition of his collection and the accompaning book by Niki van den Heuval are currently on display (March 2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
My interest is in those works from the island of Nias which lies off the west coast of Sumatra and sits perched rather precariously on the leading edge of the Asian continent and above the major Indian Ocean subduction zone. Despite the threat of earthquake and tsunami a rich ancestral culture has developed on this isolated island.
Nias has a warrior culture and this picture shows the men posing with their weapons and shields before a communal adat house built from massive ironwood piles and with a towering roof. Pay attention to their unique sword and scabbard as well as the leaf shaped shields the men are holding.
In former times warfare and headhunting were prevelant throughout Nias, with both activities considered vital to a society’s prosperity. The trappings of a warrior included adornments to signify success and rank, protective clothing and weapons such as swords, spears and large shields. Carved in the form of a stylised leaf and shaped from a single piece of wood, the shield is embellished with cords of rattan that lend the surface a reptilian appearance.
The sword and scabbard were among the most important items belonging to a warrior on Nias, serving both as a physical weapon and a protective device against enemies and malevolent spiritual forces. The swords are distinguished by ornate hilts in the form of mythical creatures and their scabbards incorporate a range of talismanic devices.
The hilt of this sword is a composite protective beast which combines the features of a hornbill, deer and crocodile. The amulet basket at the head of the scabbard is caged with animal teeth and tusks, which would offer powerful protection to the user.
A Nias tribal chief wearing a headress, his protective clothing and the decorative regalia of his office, together with his sword, scabbard and amulet basket.
The exhibition also includes collections from the Batak people of North Sumatra, the Dyak and Iban of Borneo, remote highlanders living in Central Sulawesi, various people of eastern Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, as well as those from the Cenderawasih Bay region of northern West Papua. The arts created by these communities include figurative sculpture, masks, amulets, weapons, textiles, adornments and utilitarian items.