Floating in the Savu Sea at the feet of Sumbawa and Flores is the remote island of Sumba.
Its distance from Indonesia’s major population and tourism centers of Java and Bali has protected Sumba’s ancient culture and traditions; Sumba is the only place in the world that still has megalithic burial practices and much of the population still holds to the Marapu animist belief system of ancestral worship.
The story of this faith that dates back millennia is written in the weavings and sculptures of Sumba, according to 55-year-old Umbu Charma, a Sumbanese living in Bali and taking part in the “Many Cultures of Sumba — Charm of the Pasola Horse” exhibition of Sumba arts at the Bentara Budaya Gallery in Ketewel, Gianyar.
“Marapu is our animist belief, our belief in the ancestors. We believe one day we will live with them again — reincarnation into the next world. All our carvings and weavings have a relationship with our Marapu beliefs,” says Umbu on the sidelines of the exhibition, which opened last Friday.
Marapu is an orally transmitted belief, explains Umbu, with its practices and stories passed down from generation to generation, along with the skills needed to sculpt the wood and rock and weave the iconic ikat cloth of Sumba that visually tell the story of Marapu.
“Our belief in Marapu and the oral teachings continue today. Children hear from adults and learn from them. Marapu is not taught in schools — it is a belief — not a religion under Indonesian law,” says Umbu, referring to Indonesia’s recognition under law of just five religions.
Sumba society’s inextricable links with Marapu philosophy are seen in symbolic ikat weavings of the bangsawan (nobility) in the tree of life, a fertility symbol, in the deer and horses that gambol across the ikat threads and in the headhunter’s celebrations where dozens of decapitated heads are held high in triumph, honoring the ancestors and remembering Sumba history.
Other insights into Sumba culture, such as bridal dowries, are seen in marital jewelry of knitted copper wire that has male and female ends. “If you want a wife, you have to take this with a horse to her family,” says another Bali-based Sumbanese, Balla, as he pulls several copper wire knitted necklaces from a dusty backpack.
Sculptures of the ancients stand on plinths, many with horses as their key element; Sumba is known across the archipelago for its horses and horsemen and in this exhibition that long history is celebrated in carvings and weavings.
The goal of the exhibition is to offer the wider public an understanding of Sumba and its artisans, says Umbu, but it is also a place where these artisans can sell their works, while educating people as to why there is such a large cost difference between a hand-loomed ikat from Sumba versus factory knock-offs of Sumbanese ikat motifs.
A hand-loomed Sumba ikat blanket sells from US$150 up, a factory king bed ikat blanket can be picked up for $13 in markets across Bali, to the uneducated there is little difference between the two, excepting $140 bucks or so.
This problem drives Sumbanese weaver Frederica Kay to tears. She was at the exhibition giving an ikat workshop over the weekend. Seated in front of a wooden frame, Frederica was tying off a ream of white cotton threads with palm strips to form her motif of flowers and Sumba symbols.
After the long process of creating the design, no two alike, Francesca will begin the process of dyeing the threads with the natural dyes she sources from forests.
“It takes around five months to create one ikat. For that I can sell it only for around Rp 1 [US$104.6] to 1.5 million. Tourists don’t understand the process — we need food, we need to send our kids to school,
so we are forced to sell at these prices — we need food, so yes, we sell,” says Francesca who learned ikat from her mother and grandmother before her.
“I learned for two to three years, from when I was 15 years old I could already make ikat motifs. All my weavings are still colored with natural dyes, I have indigo for the blues. I get this from near the beach, but it only grows once a year when the rain starts. I can get red anytime — this is from the root of the mengkudu tree. I prepare the dyes at home,” says Francesca, who no longer spins her own cotton from kapas or local cotton trees as the process would add another six months to each ikat she makes.
While the Sumba exhibition is a vehicle to showcase Sumba’s arts and culture, there is an atmosphere of desperation among the sellers, driving some to attempt backdoor deals in the gallery’s car park. One middle-aged man pulled a Sumba wedding necklace from his pocket, “Rp 500,000? It’s cheaper than inside,” he muttered.
A further problem is that all interpretive material about the works and Sumba cultural traditions is printed only in Indonesian, effectively barring non-Indonesian speakers the knowledge needed for them to make informed decisions when buying the weavings of artisans like Francesca.
The gallery takes a 30 percent commission on all sales, says Bentara Budaya head Warih Wisatsana. “This is to cover costs, such as the opening party, printing and other costs. There were very good sales on opening night,” he said.
Along with the arts and crafts exhibition, the gallery will host discussions and show films on Sumba to further enhance understanding of this remote southern island, whose peoples retain their culture and beliefs in a quickly changing world.
The “Many Cultures of Sumba — Charm of the Pasola Horse” exhibition at Bentara Budaya Bali runs until Sept. 7.
— Photo J.B. Djwan