“Paired Selections of Virtuosity” by Steven G. Alpert


Detail of Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.”

John Ruskin, Victorian Renaissance man, artist and art critic


In any field, there is always a difference between hyperbole and a deep educational journey into the realm of beauty. 

Speaking of the most exquisite items of Indonesian art, we are always searching for rarified material — not simply scarce or old works — that combine an inner force of character with sensitive aesthetic qualities in equal measure. Traditional Indonesians, like many other Asian societies, share in the belief that their rituals and creative pursuits involve balancing forces in order to affect the greater harmony of the whole and to augur for success in all outcomes. 

This notion is reflected in island Southeast Asia's finest artistic creations. Dr. Reimar Schefold, the eminent cultural anthropologist, has translated the concepts of Makire and Mateu from the Island of Siberut in the Mentawai Islands that are fundamental, in my view, to further understanding the region's most superlative works of material culture. (See Eyes of the Ancestors, 2010:31 and Toys for the Souls: Schefold2017).

Makire is the Mentawaian word for judging something's aesthetic value. What we would call the finest items are from a horizon where form and function become perfectly melded into something truly useful — hence beautiful. The second term, mateu, is in fact not a firm point as it equates to the word 'fitting.' 'Fitting' can be something quite literal; as does a carved and embellished door fit its' frame and decoration according to its' surroundings? Or, it can connote a philosophical, but practical rendering in a world where everything is a living entity, and can also be translated as: "Does this (it) fit my soul"? Example: your paddle is just perfect for you, but in my hands, it is too short and therefore cannot be mateu for me.

While there are no words that translate directly as 'art' in Indonesia's traditional cultures, everyone within a given community knows who are the best weavers, smiths, or carvers. In the late 1960s and through a good part of the 1970s, one could encounter peoples who were creating contemporary items of personal and ritual import using traditional practices and skillsets. In the same environment, and one could say for comparative purposes, older items of material culture still existed in situ. It was in such settings that I first came to see that local values and my own developing connoisseurship, while coming from different approaches and using significantly different criteria, often resulted in similar levels of aesthetic appreciation. A process that is difficult to master, resulting in something well-made with economy and without waste, and that has a degree of psychological impact, can be especially artful and beautiful and move us beyond our normal cultural mores and boundaries.      

Art of the Ancestors will soon mark its' first anniversary. To honor and recall the genius of the makers of the art shown on this site, we invite our readers to enjoy below our Paired Selections of Virtuosity and to further explore the site's galleries, which will soon be renovated with new additions. 


Frame & Door for a Beehive House (Euba Ekedodio)
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden | Germany


Memorial Wall Panel with Wooden Figure of a Slain Headhunting Victim | Simoinang Tulangan Sirimanua
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Carving with Monkey Skull | Jaraik
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Mourning Mask | Topeng
© Museum Nasional Indonesia

Male Protective Figure | Pangulubalang
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France


Detail of a Chief’s Sword | Balatu Sala
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Memorial in Stone of Mother and Child
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands


Ceremonial Split Rattan Mat | Lampit
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Woman’s Ceremonial Skirt | Tapis
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Warrior's Headdress Ornament, Frontal Figure | Tap Lavong Kayo
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Standing Guardian Figure | Tepatung
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Totemic Punan Pole
© Sarawak State Museum | Malaysia

Bahau Figure
© The Fowler Museum at UCLA | California, USA


Vaunted Ancestor Figure from a Mamasa Aristocrat’s House
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Large Gold Bracelet | Komba Lola'
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Royal Woman’s Tubular Sarong (Detail) | Tais Feto
The Dallas Museum of Art | USA


Ancestor Figure | Itara
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Shrine Figure of Deity | Lebu-Hmoru
© Eskenazi Museum of Art | Indiana, USA


Pair of Nage Ancestor Figures | Ana Deo
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art | New York, USA

Woman’s Ceremonial Sarong | Lawo Buto
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Man’s Ceremonial Ikat Mantle | Hinggi
© The Dallas Museum of Art | USA

Woman's Ceremonial Sarong | Lau Pahudu
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands


Leti Mouth Mask | Luhulei
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Porka Festival Flag
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Ancestral Shrine Figure | Lamiaha
© Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum | Germany

Luang Pectoral
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France


Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Female Ancestor Figure | Lake Sentani
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA