Nias is the name of the largest island within a small archipelago of the same name that lies some 150 kilometers off the west coast of Northern Sumatra.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Man Ray Trust

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Until the consolidation of Dutch rule in the early 20th century, Nias was home to one of the Indonesian archipelago’s most vibrant aristocratic warrior cultures. The Isle of Nias can be roughly divided into three culturally distinct zones; north, south, and central Nias. Each region has a distinctive dialect, architectural style, and aesthetic variations. In central Nias, all traditional villages were built on hilly redoubts in the interior of the island. To the south, villages are dominated by great, tall houses (omo sebua) of powerful chieftains. These elaborate and imposing edifices extolled the status of aristocrats in a highly stratified society. Constructed on massive ironwood and teak pilings, a chiefly dwelling served as a defensive keep that housed an extended clan. 

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Massive buttresses, set at 45-degree angles extended upwards from the base of a great house to the top of the outermost pilings, provided protection from the frequent earthquakes for which this area is renowned. The interiors of these sophisticated and stately structures featured finely-planed tongue-and-groove paneling in gleaming hardwoods, such as teak and red palm wood. 

Carved utilitarian objects, complex ornamentation, shrines, and imposing statues of venerated ancestors (adu) in wood and stone created a further sense of the nobility's prerogatives within a microcosmos that affirmed and magnified their glory.

The great Nias clan houses to the south of the island were set in rows around handsome stone plazas. Outside of these elaborate dwellings, massive carved stone seats, platforms, decorated dolmens, and menhirs were arrayed in honor of nobles and ancestors who vied to elevate their status and immortalize their feats.

The houses of Northern Nias are round and less imposing than the monumental structures of the Central and Southern regions. However, they housed singularly impressive Adu Sihara Salawa statues that are associated with North Nias. Most of the fine surviving ancestor figures from the north of the island were collected in the days of early Christian missionary activity in the area during the second half of the 19th century.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Inter-clan conflicts, headhunting raids and rituals, slave trading, and the valorization of violent prowess were fundamental features of Nias civilization. Merit and noble rank were attained through prescribed rituals and copious consumption of sacrificial pigs. This reflected the ostentatious, swashbuckling martial ethos of traditional Nias culture until the populace’s mass conversion to Christianity precipitated the breakdown of Nias traditions, in what was then known as ‘de grosse reue’ (the great repentance).

Notable artworks from Nias include ancestral images in various mediums, ritual wooden carvings, martial accouterments, cleverly fashioned items of everyday usage, stone monuments and memorials, as well as gold ornaments that commemorated achievements and the titles received for sponsoring opulent feasts of merit.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Nias masterworks are situated in museum collections in prestigious locations including Museum Nasional Indonesia, Museum Pusaka Nias, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, The British Museum, Musée du Quai-Branly, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Weltmuseum Wien, Yale University Art Gallery, The Dallas Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and de Young Museum.

Jerome Feldman's books and writings on Nias provide a fine basis for further inquiries into the wonders of this region’s artistic heritage, history, and cultural traditions.

 

 
 

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

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

Ceremonial Stone Seat | Osa-Osa Si Sara Mbagi
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

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

Box Lid with Human Hands
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ancestor Statue | Adu
© Museum Nasional Indonesia

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ceremonial Stone Seat | Osa-Osa Si Sara Mbagi
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Ancestor Figure | Adu Zatua
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

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

Chieftan’s Headhunter Torc | Kalabubu
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Triad of Ancestor Statues
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Ancestor Figure on Zoomorphic Throne | Adu Zatua | Osa-Osa
© Weltmuseum Wien | Austria

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Sculpture of a Noble Woman | Adu Sarambia
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Stone Seat | Osa-Osa Si Sara Mbagi
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Seated Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Aristocratic Wooden Storage Container with Human Hands
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ancestor Statue | Adu Zatua
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Texas, USA

Seated Male Ancestor Figure | Adu Sihara Salawa
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Sword | Bulatto
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Ancestor Statue | Adu Zatua
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Female’s Golden Crown from South Nias | Rai Högö
© Museum Pusaka Nias | Indonesia

Royal Sword | Telögu
© The Fowler Museum at UCLA | California, USA

Row of Ancestor Figures | Adu Nuwu
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Seated Ancestor Figure | Adu Zatua
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Forked Ancestor Figure | Adu Hörö
© Weltmuseum Wien | Vienna

Ancestor Statue | Adu So Bawa Zihono
© Museum Nasional Indonesia