Life

Exhibition is dedicated
to the artifacts of the
Batak

A photograph of a Toba Batak woman by Peter Horree (Courtesy of the Quai Branly Museum)

In Paris, at the Museum Quai Branly, there is a complete section on the Indonesian archipelago, from Merauke to Papua.

The collections of specific groups in Indonesia are now under the expert guidance of Constance de Monbrison, the curator of the Indonesian collection.

The collections originate from various sources, including those from the former Museum of Mankind, Trocadero, Paris, and private donations from French and Dutch collectors or travellers.

A substantial section of the Batak collection here in Paris was acquired in 2001 by the French state from the Barbier-Mueller collection of the southeast Asian archipelago in Geneva -- or again from direct donations over the past two centuries.

Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller himself undertook several journeys to this area beginning from the late 1960s.

Guest curator of the small but brilliant show of 94 artifacts and textiles -- representing the cream of Quai Branly's artifacts, together with loans, particularly from the Netherlands -- is ethnologist Peter ter Keurs.

This photograph of Batukaran village in Batak country was taken by Tassilo Adam. (Courtesy of Tropenmuseum Amsterdam)

Ter Keurs is curator and specialist of material cultures of tribal groups in Indonesia, the Philippines and New Guinea. At present, he is curator at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leyden, Netherlands.

Ter Keurs: "The aim -- together with co-curator Constance de Monbrison -- was not to show the entire range of Batak civilization, but to evoke certain themes.

"At the same time we also meant to introduce the vivid past of this long-forgotten society to visitors here.

"These are societies based in the valley or surrounding low mountains, where Lake Toba is found in contemporary Indonesia."

The Dutch curator added that the first European explorers had to deal with the ferocious attitude of the Batak people, so that the colonial Dutch only "discovered" this valley in 1853.

Therefore the word "Batak" itself, whose origins are yet unknown by specialists, acquired a connotation of unknown, fiercely proud peoples.

Visitors to this show can rest assured that there are still many other Batak artifacts in the main Indonesian section of the museum. However, a choice of the cream of the artifacts, enriched by loans, is now situated in one of the airy special balcony-wing spaces of the museum, focusing on vital points of Batak culture.

For example in one well-lit showcase, visitors can admire a selection of weapons and knives collected by French consul and businessman Jules Claine (1856-1938), who visited the Batak area in June 1890.

At first, a simple map greets visitors to the geographical site: Sumatra, Indonesia (and before that the Dutch colony of the East Indies).

Visitors can begin to visualize the ancient caldera of a volcano, in which nestles Lake Toba.

Around the lake, now 100 by 30 kms large, six main ethnic groups settled down.

At the center, the south, southeast and at the west of Lake Tobe (Danau Toba) lived the Tobas; at the north-west, the Pakpak and Pak Dairi; at the north and north-east, the Karos and Simalungan; south of which live the Mandailing and the Angkola.

Some contemporary photos illustrate the present day.

The three-dimensional feeling around this large surface of water is important.

As well as the tropical climate and rich soil coming from the former volcano the Batak peoples' dependence on canoes, boats, and later steam-boats is also documented.

The top of a priest magician's baton, which is attached to a long, smooth wooden cane and acts as shield. The carved head is topped by cock feathers, horse hair and brass details. (Courtesy of Quai Branly Museum)

However many aspects of the history of the Bataks still remain largely unknown, if not entirely wrapped in mystery, such as their scripts, based on the Ekawi derived from the ancient Javanese used by priests for their rituals.

These were kept in divination books, like long strips of paper in accordion form, pressed between two wooden covers. The sacred texts and magic recipes could only by read by the Edatu or high-priests. We have one specimen here.

Such details lie far away from the European tradition of intellectuals. Village life provided the family groups with a social setting.

It is now well-know that big family groups are called Emarga by the Tobas, or Emerga by the Karos.

These margas were Exogame meaning that nobody was allowed to marry within his or her own marga.

The hierarchy of these clans depended on the origins of the wives: the marga from which a wife originated was thus higher in stature.

Family life took place around the impressively built wooden houses on stilts which show the sculptural mastery, and architectural concepts of the Batak.

Here we find samples of such sculpture.

Also displayed is a fine sample of a funeral puppet in wood and clothed as that of the departed spirit, above its wooden case. Besides these are choice stone sculptures, funerary and otherwise, like a rice granary.

Constance de Monbrison, who comes from a distinguished family of collectors of extraordinary artifacts, from world ethnic groups in the past and present, concurs with Ter Keur's approach.

De Monbrison explained during a tour of the exhibition: "I was also struck by the resemblance of certain stone sculptures with other parts of the austronesian world.

"Architectural elements in wood are handled with extreme dexterity by the artisans who built these houses. Not a single iron nail is used. Whether with cast alloys of metal or in wooden sculptures, the fertile imagination of the male master-sculptures and jewelers are astounding."

Ter Keurs and De Monbrison have not forgotten the role of women in Batak society.

The role of the woman is not only in child-bearing and cooking, but also essential in weaving traditional, ritual textiles.

Six textiles -- five ancient and one contemporary -- are on display chosen with the aid of Dutch-Canadian expert on Batak textiles, Sandra Niessen, another contributor to the catalogue.

Two of these textiles entered French museum collections in the XIX century: one in 1880, donated by a Dr. Ruck, and another by the curatorship of the Dutch East Indies after the "Exposition Universelle of 1889" in Paris. The other three came from the ex-Barbier-Mueller Batak textile collection.

The quality of these also clearly display signs of being ancient. Niessen added a contemporary Batak textile from her collection.

As a young man, Tassilo Adam was a privileged witness to Batak life after beginning to work for a Dutch tobacco plantation in Deli, near Medan, in 1899 at the age of 21.

Adam began to take photos with a large, unwieldy camera and to develop the big-plate prints himself.

Major portions of the collections of the master photographer and amateur ethnographer were donated to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as to the Brooklyn Museum in the U.S.

Additionally, the Quai Branly Museum commissioned Dutch photographer Peter Horree to take specific color photos in the very recent past.

Here we see houses on stilts, the rest of the stone statuary, the landscape around Lake Toba, and present-day faces, to compare with those taken by Adam.

Batak poet and writer Sitor Situmorang, on his visit to show, together with his wife Barbara Brouwer on April 3 commented: "All I can see is but a fragment of the past as I experienced it".

The poet remembers the larger context in his memories of his youth and past experiences.

However this exhibition is a worthy tribute to the Batak people. Do hurry up and witness it before it ends. Or procure the catalogue which will last longer, but is still only in French.

North of Sumatra, the Batak
Quai Branly Museum, Paris
Until May 11

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