Maluku is a great archipelago of more than 1,000 islands in the Banda Sea of Eastern Indonesia. These isles have commonly been referred to by foreigners as the 'Spice Islands.'

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Northern Maluku is the ancestral home of cloves, nutmeg, and mace. The quest for these precious and costly commodities was a source of inspiration for Europe's 'Age of Discovery.' Moluccan islands like Banda, that were luxuriantly rich in spice gardens, were decimated during the violent struggle by outsiders to control the trade of these rare exports.

The remote islands of southeastern Maluku, lying between Timor and New Guinea, lacked the abundance of the contested resources of their northern neighbors. The peoples of this region remained largely beyond the reach of world religions and thus maintained traditional beliefs, cultural practices, and art forms until their conversion to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Presently, Southern Maluku is grouped into three sub-districts: the Babar Islands in the East (including Luang and Sermata), Leti, Moa, and Lakor in the center and the Southernmost Islands in the West (encompassing Kisar, Wetar, Roma, and Damar), in addition to the archipelagos of Kai and Tanimbar further to the East. Many of these islands share similar cultural traits and practices. Masterworks of traditional Moluccan artistry include gold and ivory heirlooms, elaborate jewelry and ornaments, textiles, magical amulets, weapons, and shields. The most distinctive and beautiful figurative creations from this region convey a majestic sense of quiet, inner harmony, and artistic ingenuity.

Reflecting the concept of a bi-partite as opposed to a tripartite cosmos, yet similar in design to other aristocratic houses in Indonesia, Moluccan traditional dwellings resemble immense oceangoing vessels. A nautical iconography befitting a fearless seafaring people is found in many physical aspects of houses, in the symbolic language applied to marriage and birth, and the ritual terms employed for many ceremonial functions. Aside from representing deities, the largest and most artistically accomplished sculptures often represented clan founders and other venerated ancestors.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

On the subject of female clan founders, Nico de Jonge has documented striking figures called Luli (meaning 'sacred') that represent the Southern Moluccan vision of an original 'Eve' — the founding mother of noble matrilineal family lines. These goddess-like figures range from subtle abstract renderings to  some of the most beautifully articulated of all Moluccan sculptural creations. 

At times represented with extended arms raised towards heaven, the luli is the source of life and the fount of abundance. In de Jonge's analysis of gender dynamics in Southern Maluku, the fertile, life-giving role of women is set in stark juxtaposition to the life-taking, warrior identity of men. 

On the Leti islands, natural resources were scarce and warring groups were engaged in perpetual conflict and headhunting. The Porka festival is a fertility feast that brought an essential pause to life's daily routines with the intention of bringing about renewal and increased abundance.

This ceremonial event was also initiated to bring a village back to a state of normalcy after negative or catastrophic events. Before a Porka feast, a village would fly startling flags in the shape of human figures and erect carved posts to announce its temporary closure. These celebrations involved a suspension of the usual social order to promote revitalization and a communal return to a balanced state of being.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The mouth masks of Leti are remarkable creations that were deployed as dramatic props within this charged ritual context. During the Porka festival, there was great feasting, singing, dancing, and condoned sexual licentiousness. The headhunting and sexual aspects of these festivals were seized upon as the pretext for the expansion of European authority into the Southern Moluccas. During the late colonial era, many traditional practices were brought to halt over time due to the intensified proselytizing efforts of Christian missionaries. 

An exquisite array of Maluku masterpieces are found scattered through global museum collections including Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in the Netherlands, Museo Rautenstrauch-Joest in Germany, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany, The British Museum, Musée du Quai-Branly in France, Museum Rietberg in Switzerland, Museum Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta, The Dallas Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Yale University Art Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Honolulu Art Museum.

Valuable insights regarding the material culture of Southern Maluku are furnished in Nico De Jonge's Forgotten Islands of Indonesia: The Art and Culture of the Southeast Moluccas and with specific regard to the history of the region, in the writings of Leonard Andaya.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 

Ancestor Figure
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art | New York, USA

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

Ancestor Figure
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art | New York, USA

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

Luang Gold Mask Ornament
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Massive Gold Necklace
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ancestor Figure
© Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum | Germany

Shield | Wetar
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Mouth Mask
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Sermata Shrine Figure | Tavu
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

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

Mouth Mask
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Shrine Figure | Luli
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Luang Shrine Figure | Luli
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ancestor Figure
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Luang Shrine Figure | Luli
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Mouth Mask
© Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum | Germany

Shrine Figure | Luli
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Post Figure
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Panel | Damar
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Porka Festival Flag
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Porka Festival Flag
© Weltmuseum Wien | Austria

Porka Festival Flag
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Germany

Ancestor Post Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Tanimbar Sword Hilt
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ancestor Figure Fragment
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Tanimbar Pectoral
© Honolulu Museum of Art | Hawaii, USA

Ancestor Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ancestor Shrine © Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum | Germany

Ancestor Shrine
© Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum | Germany

Ancestor Figure
© Rietberg Museum | Switzerland

Crested Head of an Ancestor Figure
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ceremonial Ikat Textile
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Ikat Textile
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Barkcloth Jacket
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Kisar Ritual Ikat Shawl
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Luang Pectoral
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

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

Kisar Gold Pectoral Disc
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Kai Ancestor Figure
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ivory Amulet
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Gold Ornament
© Honolulu Art Museum | Hawaii, USA

Gold Ornament
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Gold Crown
© Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Texas, USA

Carved Comb in Wood and Ivory
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Figure of a Dog
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Shrine Figure | Tavu
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Kai Ancestor Figure
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Carved Ivory Figure
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Kisar Gold and Trade Bead Necklace
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Shrine Figure | Tavu
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Shrine Figure | Tavu
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands