Sunday, March 4, 2012


Type: Stone Sculpture
Classification: Sculpture
Region: Insular South-East Asia
Where it was made: Indonesia. Sumatra, Barus region (coastal harbour in the Indian Ocean)
Culture: Batak, Toba subgroup
Time period: 19th Century
Materials: Stone
Dimension: 87 cm (height)
Object ID: INV. 3137
Acquired from Emile Deletaille in 1979

Rue Jean-Calvin, 10, 1204 Genève


Effigies mejan of well-known figures, often with the joint roles of village chief (raja) and magician (datu) were sculpted only by the South Pakpak (who probably invented them), the western Toba (the rare ‘couples’ – horseman and seated woman – seen on Samosir Island are very late) and the Simalungun, where their appearance is very different to this one.

I did several field studies between 1974 and 1998 to identify certain styles specific to the magiciansculptors (datu panggana) of the Pakpak, Simsim, Pakpak Kalasan (previously unknown) and western Toba subgroups. Stone equestrian portraits (mejan) of chiefs are usually accompanied by portraits of their wives, depicted seated, nude or, later, wearing a sarong.

The man’s mount is often, as here, a singa, a mythological monster representing a god of the subterranean world, Raja Padoha (or Naga Padoha), a kind of giant horned snake. The flowing lines of this and the following sculpture (the wife of this raja, whose rank is attested by her armband) are specific to the mountainous region between the coast and Pusuk, where the benzoin and camphor, which once made the fortune of the Barus, was produced since Antiquity. The style of the highland Barus is incontestably derived from that of the Pakpak Kalasan, who are separated from the Pakpak Simsim by a mountain range and interspersed in the west Toba region. Their clans (less than a dozen) were all founded by a chief from a Toba clan.

Nevertheless, they claim (like the Pakpak Simsim) to have received, some fifty generations (four to five hundred years) ago, the teaching of an elderly sage from India called Guru Kalasan, who taught them to cremate their dead. Thus, instead of the large sarcophagi containing bones of the Toba and Simalungun, they have small urns for the ashes, which are placed in front of equestrian statues, many of which have disappeared. Sometimes the mount is a horse or an elephant. Here, it is a singa, recognisable by its long curved tongue, which some early travellers mistook for a trunk.

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller
Arts of Africa and Oceania. Highlights from the Musée Barbier-Mueller, musée Barbier-Mueller & Hazan (eds.), 2007: p. 258.

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