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Shedding light on an Italian adventure in Nias

Tunggul Wirajuda
Tunggul Wirajuda

A media practitioner for over 10 years in both TV and print.

Jakarta | Tue, December 27, 2016 | 01:18 pm
Shedding light on an Italian adventure in Nias

Elio Modigliani's encounters with the fierce, famously independent tribes of Nias might stand as some of the most audacious feats of exploration by Europeans in Indonesia. (Facebook/Tanah Para Pendekar)

Italian explorer and scientist Elio Modigliani literally took his life in his hands as he ventured to the southern part of the island of Nias from April to September 1886. In a feat worthy of Indiana Jones, the Florentine braved the headhunting tribes of the area and managed to keep his head during the expedition, which was commissioned by the National Anthropological and Ethnographic Museum in Florence.

Modigliani brought back samples of Nias’ fauna, flora and culture, among them a rather macabre collection of 26 headhunted skulls, and chronicled his findings and experiences in his book Un Viaggio a Nias (A voyage to Nias), which was published in 1890.

While Modigliani’s encounters with the fierce, famously independent tribes of Nias might stand as some of the most audacious feats of exploration by Europeans in Indonesia, he still remains largely unknown in Indonesia and elsewhere outside Italy. But Italian writer Vanni Puccioni is set to enlighten the Indonesian public about his compatriot, as he recently launched Tanah Para Pendekar: Petualangan Elio Modigliani di Nias Selatan Tahun 1886 (The Land of Warriors: The Adventures of Elio Modigliani in Southern Nias in 1886), an Indonesian translation of his 2013 book Tra i Tagliatori di Teste: Elio Modigliani, un fiorentino all’esplorazione di Nias Selatan, 1886 at the Italian Cultural Institute in Jakarta.

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“I first heard of Elio Modigliani when I went to Nias to aid the North Sumatra provincial government reconstruct the island [in the wake of the 2004 South Asia tsunami],” said Puccioni, whose aid and relief work in organizations like the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations has taken him around the world. “During the expedition, Modigliani made one of the first maps of Nias by a European; he also carried out research [on eugenics], or the difference between races.” 

“Among the fascinating incidents recounted in the book was Modigliani’s psychological battle of wits [with South Nias chieftain Siwa Sahilu], which the former managed to win without any bloodshed or firing a shot. This is a far cry from the experiences of other western explorers in Nias” said Puccioni, a University of Florence alumnus in architecture and grandson of the museum director who exhibited Modigliani’s artifacts from Nias. “Many of them had to literally run for their lives from the island’s warlike tribes, which were known to resist foreign intrusions into their land, among them the Dutch colonial government then administering Indonesia.”

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Puccioni added that he was greatly aided by Modigliani’s daughter Mohua, whose access to her father’s documents and notes had been invaluable in writing the book.

While Modigliani is not exactly a household name in Indonesia, his legacy did not go unnoticed. “Modigliani was among the first westerners to shed light on Nias’ language, as he compiled an Italian-Nias dictionary,” said William Sabandar, the president director of Jakarta’s MRT project and a former head of Nias’ Tsunami Reconstruction Board. “The artifacts that he brought out of Nias to Florence raised its profile in the West. Most of all, his experiences there left an indelible impression on Modigliani, as his daughter Mohua’s name is derived from a word in the Nias language.”

Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly also left rave reviews of Puccioni’s tome, as he extolled it as recommended reading for Indonesians keen to know more about their colonial past. 

For his part, Puccioni has yet to turn the page to Nias. He is currently working on In the Time of Butterflies, a novel set in Nias during the time of Modigliani’s expedition there. But whether it is Modigliani’s real life experiences or the upcoming book’s fictional plot, it is hard for one not to be swayed by Nias’ mystique.

 

Book title: Tanah Para Pendekar: Petualangan Elio Modigliani di Nias Selatan Tahun 1886

Pages: 360 pages

Publisher: Gramedia Publishing 2016

 

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A media practitioner for over 10 years in both TV and print. Tunggul Wirajuda found a niche in the latter, particularly as a features writer. He often writes about visual or performing arts, but just is at home in writing about automotive, culinary and film, among other things.

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