Enggano is the barrier island located roughly 100 kilometers to the west off the southern coast of Lampung, South Sumatra.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Creative Commons

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Traditional artworks from this obscure island are both formidable and visually haunting. The history and traditional culture of Enggano are sparsely documented, but we do have limited evidence regarding the tragic collapse of the island's indigenous society and culture during the 19th century. By the 1880’s, the population had decreased by 80% due to slave raids, repeated deadly epidemics, the aftermaths of cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, a disastrous tsunami, and a fundamental scarcity of natural resources. Art from Enggano is exceedingly rare and what has survived of it was collected more than a century ago.

 
 
 

© Creative Commons

One of Enggano's first European visitors, Charles Miller, wrote in 1771 that the men were tall and well-made, while women played a dominant role in what was clearly a matriarchal society. This observation was echoed more than 100 years later in the title and writings of the Italian explorer and naturalist, Elio Modigliani in The Island of Women (L'isola delle Donne, 1894). Roughly seven years after the eruption of Krakatoa, Modigliani visited the island and collected an exceptional representation of Enggano’s artistic creations. 

Much like their northern neighbors in the Mentawai islands, the people of Enggano traded for beads and also bartered for iron blades, tools and tin foil as they lacked the technical knowledge of metallurgy. The practice of weaving was absent on Enggano. Instead, tree bark was pounded and worked into fine cloth that was cut and sewn into ceremonial jackets and other garments.

These articles of clothing were, at times, decorated with pigments and imported glass beads. Red trade beads acquired from Buginese merchants were used to embellish the pig hair belts of prominent women. These beads are believed to have signified the heads of fallen enemies taken in headhunting raids.

 
 
 

Little is known regarding the details of the ritual practices of Enggano's people at the apogee of their culture. Apparently, there were both male and female chiefs, with the ritual position of women higher than men, due to their elevated role as ‘feast givers’. The kaleak baba ceremonies invoked ancestral blessings on harvest and hunting practices. These rituals culminated in the division of food, feasting, singing, and dancing.

 In this ceremonial context, aristocratic women wore beaded hip belts, intricately fashioned amulets, and the iconic epaku, fantastical cylindrical wooden hats. The epaku was topped with a prominently carved squatting figure, said to represent a slain enemy, and decorated with feathers and imported metal foil. These ceremonial hats are symbolic of the people of Enggano’s artistic verve and creative genius. 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Enggano’s round 'beehive’ shaped houses, ornamented war canoes, and the compressed torque and muscularity of their figures are stylistically reminiscent of Polynesian art. The rare Enggano artifacts presented here are shards of history from a lost world, serving to remind us of distance, cultural erasure, and the passage of time.

Significant early collections of Enggano artifacts can be found in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Universita di Firenze, Museum Nasional Indonesia, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In Germany, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden also possesses an exceptional and historic epaku.

In 2012, Albert van Zonneveld published an illuminating study on the weapons and martial culture of Enggano entitled Traditionele Wapens van Enggano: Een Verdwenen Cultuur van de Indonesische Archipel. An article authored by Pieter ter Keurs and published by the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen is a vital compilation of resources on Enggano's artistic legacy.

 
 

Central House Ornament
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

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

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

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Ceremonial Bark Cloth Jacket for Eakalea Feast
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Carved Wooden Head
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Carved Wooden Head
© Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde Leiden | The Netherlands

Prow Ornament
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Women’s Belt
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Ritual Knife with Head of Slain Enemy
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Ritual Knife with Head of Slain Enemy
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ritual Knife with Head of Slain Enemy
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Amulet
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Canoe Strut and Spear Rest
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Canoe Strut and Spear Rest
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Shield
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Aristocratic Women's Ceremonial Hat | Epaku
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands