The Mentawai archipelago is situated in the Indian Ocean some 150 kilometers off the west coast of Sumatra.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

There are four main islands — Siberut, Sipora, and North and South Pagai. Due to the forbidding challenges of the local geography and the lack of immediate opportunities for economic exploitation, the inhabitants of Mentawai were primarily spared the direct interventions of European colonialism. The most dramatic changes to the traditions of Mentawai occurred after the Indonesian revolution, which led to the institution of new national laws on religion and land tenure. In recent years, a slow but inexorable transition has eventuated from subsistence-oriented social systems towards a modern orientation.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

In 1821, Sir Stamford Raffles, wrote of Mentawai in a letter to the Duchess of Somerset: "I made further discoveries in these islands, where I found a population more likable and, if possible, still more ingenuous. If I continue in this direction, I may somewhere (to) find the Garden of Eden and descendants of our first parents." 

The majority of the artworks presented below derive from the island of Siberut, and in particular from the Sakuddei people, formerly one of the most isolated groups in the Malay Indonesian archipelago. 

Traditionally, the Sakuddei and related Mentawaian groups were egalitarian fisherfolk, horticulturalists, hunter-gatherers, and headhunters who possessed neither knowledge of metallurgy nor of the loom.

Iron tools, weapons, textiles, and beads were bartered from Malay traders in exchange for forest products and horticultural produce.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The Sakuddei make sculptural creations that they refer to as ‘toys’, objects that are beautified and made alluring to foster good outcomes. They accomplish this objective through the decoration of houses (uma) and by making themselves attractive. Embellishment of the body through tattooing is practiced with high skill as well. The Sakuddei carve birds and decorate animal skulls to be able to call on them and to please these creature's souls as well as their own. Such creations are then displayed in the upper gallery and walls of the uma as these 'toys' are made to call, attract and lure game, and thus promote successful future hunts. 

To fully appreciate the artistry of their shields, daggers, carved memorial panels, and powerful sacred objects (jaraik) it is important to ponder two Sakuddei concepts: Makire: Is a creation makire — made properly and as well as it can be, in terms of its form, volumes, and decoration? Or in the case of personal belongings, Mateu: Not merely functional, but befitting and in harmony with its surroundings.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Dr. Reimar Schefold

Masterworks displayed from Mentawai are held in museum collections in Europe and America. They can be found in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Museum der Kulturen Basel, GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Weltmuseum Wien, The Dallas Museum of Art, Peabody Essex Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Reimar Schefold has been involved with the Sakuddei since 1967 and has written extensively about Mentawai. In 2017, Dr. Schefold published an updated, expanded English translation of his classic, Toys for the Souls: Life and Art in the Mentawai Islands,(Spielzeug für die, Seelen, Kunst und Kultur der Mentawai-Inseln,1979-80), the quintessential work on this topic.

© Dr. Reimar Schefold

 
 

Memorial Board Representing Deceased Family Members | Kirekat
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

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

Wall Panel with Langur Monkey | Tulangan Joja
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Figurative Wooden Board | Inv #: IIC2636
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Dagger with Human Head | Pattei
© Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History | Washington D.C.,USA

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

Female Guardian Figure | Tulangan Sirimanua
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Decorated Boar’s Skull Hunting Trophy | Utet Simaigi | Inv #: IIC2663
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Wall Panel Decorated in Relief with Hornbill
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Warrior’s Shield | Koraibi
© Peabody Essex Museum | Massachusetts, USA

Human Figure | Tularat Sirimanua
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Male Guardian Figure | Tulangan Sirimanua
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Dagger with Human Head | Pattei
© Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History | Washington D.C., USA

Sacred Carving with Monkey Skull | Jaraik | Inv #: IIC2683
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Detail of Sacred Carving with Monkey Skull | Jaraik | Inv #: IIC2683
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Staircase Guardian of a Family House | Tulangan Sirimanua
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Warrior’s Shield | Koraibi (Front)
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Warrior’s Shield | Koraibi (Back)
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Decorated Boar’s Skull Hunting Trophy | Utet Simaigi | Inv #: IIC2591
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Incised and Painted Decorative Wooden Board | Inv #: IIC2653
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Sacred Carving with Monkey Skull | Jaraik
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Warrior’s Shield | Koraibi
© Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig | Germany

Warrior’s Shield | Kurabit
© Weltmuseum Wien | Vienna

Warrior’s Shield | Kurabit
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Hornbill Figure with Human Shaped Leg | Inv #: IIC2678
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Dagger with Rooster | Pattei
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Dagger with Human Figure | Parittei, Palittei, Pattei
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Dagger | Pattei
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA