Tribal art


Tau Tau

A pair, male and female effigies
Size: male 140cm, female 135cm
Material: Jackfruit tree wood
Tribe: Toraja
Origin: Sulawesi, Indonesia
19th century
Tau tau are a type of effigy made of wood or bamboo. They are particular to the Toraja ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The word “tau” means “man”, and “tau tau” means “men” or “statue”. The tau tau are representatives of the deceased, ever-guarding the tombs and ever-protecting the living.
Traditionally, the effigies were simply carved, only to show the gender of the deceased.
The types of wood used for the effigies and what they are clothed in also reflect the status and wealth of the deceased. Tau tau of the wealthy would generally be made of wood from the jackfruit tree. They are usually permanent statues that can be found standing at the entrance of tombs, which are carved out of rock faces of Toraja.



Overmodelled human skull, Solomon Islands

Material: skull, pearlshell, tridacna shell, wood, clay, wax
Origin: Solomon Islands
19th century
This head is a very fine example of the exquisit solomon islands art. I had the skull x-rayed and CT-scanned. The lower jar is fixed on a piece of wood. The deceased has been burried lying on the left side, as you can see remains of the brain sticking on the left side of the skull.
The over modeling process was not an end in itself but a mediary between a primary and secondary burial of the deceased’s remains, further complicated by sets of mourning rituals, ranging from the celebratory to the silent.
The over modeling process, examples of which can be seen all over the world across the ages, is part of a particularly rich and captivating tradition in the South Pacific islands that begins surprisingly not immediately after death, but after the body has been processed through the village and mourned for the first time, and buried for a variable period of time. After the grave is opened, the actual human skull that is simultaneously hidden and echoed by the black clay, shells and wax, is cleaned and prepared to receive the treatment visible here. The transformation from a literal bone white skeletal canvas back into the fleshy likeness of the deceased is not carried out by kin, but by the most able artisan, a choice that reflects this culture’s appreciation for skill and distinguished craftsmanship. The clay and bone—the soft and hard, masculine and feminine—coming together represents life’s opposites and the complementarity experienced in everyday life. Finally, the finished over modeled skull, the final design of which is believed to be approved by the deceased himself, is carried through the village and mourned yet again in a variety of ways.




Material: human skull, wood, clay, glass pearl
Origin: Geelvink channel, New Guinea
Early 20th century
A similar Korwar figure is in the collection of the Louvre, Paris.
Korwar figures serve to keep surviving relatives in contact with their deceased ancestors and thus always able to secure their powerful blessings. They serve as a medium of communication between the living and the dead.
The shield has been said to derive from the snake, which in turn represents rejuvenation and regeneration, a key idea in the religion of the people of Cenderawasih Bay.



Zoomorphic Fish Reliquary

Origin: Solomon Islands, Santa Anna Island
Middle of the 20th Century
Material:  Wood, Skull, Shell inlay, Natural Pigments
Size: 102cm x 40cm
The soil on Santa Anna Island is poor. Fishing is indispensable to the life of its populations. Their ritualized activity surrounding this activity reflects their bond with the marine world. Young boys are initiated into this activity in the buildings that have been built along the coastline where these reliquaries have been preserved in bonito form, which is a kind of tunny fish or shark, as well as the big fishing and and war canoes. These reliquaries held the skulls of chieftains, and the long bones of the deceased were placed in the canoes. Mourning rituals allowed for the transformation of the dead chieftain into a protective force. Thus, chieftains of important people could reincarnate, after their deaths, into swordfish and sharks, which then became tutelary deities.



Batak Stone Coffin

Origin: Sumatra, Indonesia
19th century
Size: 72cm x 32cm x 30cm
A very rare stone coffin from the Batak showing a pair of ancestors on one side and a mythical head on the other. Fabulous carvings of humans riding an elephant, a tree of life and others. Filled with human bones and skull.
This is a secondary burial coffin, the deceased was buried in the ground and after one year the bones have been excavated in a ceremony, cleaned and entombed.
Due to the progressive islamisation many of the old Batak grave yards have been destroyed, thus this wonderful piece is extremely rare.


Batak magic staff – Tunggal panaluan

Origin: Sumatra, Indonesia
19th century
Material: wood, hair, feathers, fibre
Elaborately carved wooden staffs are the most important tools of Batak priests [datu]. Potent and greatly feared, the objects are used in esoteric rites to ward off evil, protect villages and foretell the future. So powerful are they that the sorcerer himself carves the images into his staff, and impregnates it with a magic potion. That powerful substance is created through the macabre process of abducting a child from another community, gaining his allegiance and then killing him with poison and distilling his corpse.
Priests’ staffs usually feature anthropomorphic figures. On this staff, a priest is riding a mythical beast called Singa and demonic creatures appear in ascending size, one upon the other. The human hair and the feathers of the top figure are bound by a headdress of fibre.