Sulawesi is a vast island to the east of Borneo. Shaped like a spider with long draping legs, Sulawesi is home to a great diversity of distinctive peoples, languages and cultural traditions.

 

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

Toraja, meaning “people of the uplands”, was the appellation given to peoples of highland Central Sulawesi by the neighboring and at times, antagonistic, coastal Buginese. Ensconced and isolated in their territories in the highlands of central Sulawesi, the Toraja evaded Dutch colonial control until the relatively late year of 1905. As a result, they were able to maintain the traditions that created and fostered a profound megalithic civilization. A central focus of the presentation below is on the aesthetic traditions of the Sa'dan, Mamasa, Kalumpang, Tae, Toala and Sa'dan speakers-- collectively known as the Toraja, alongside a small selection of exemplary works fashioned by the peoples of Minahasa, Kulawi, and the Lake Poso area.

 
 
 

© New York Public Library

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Toraja culture centers around aristocratic prerogatives, where wealth and prestige are measured in numbers of buffalo, in titles, and in the great aristocratic houses known as tongkonan. These houses are regarded as living entities that reflect a microcosm of the Torajan worldview of kinship, life, death, power, and status. Toraja men excelled in carving and building. Their remarkable structures are adorned with carved panels, ornamented doors, the horns of sacred water buffalo, and striking buffalo imagery.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

In Mamasa, on rare occasions, houses were also decorated on the front and rear facades at cardinal points, and just below the house's central transverse beam with bold figures of seminal ancestors.

From the curving roof that mirrors the sky to the sturdy legs of a house’s raised pylons, every part of a grand dwelling is named, cared for, and partitioned in accordance with life’s dualities and the dictates of 'aluk to dolo,' 'the way of the ancestors.'

Weavers from Kalumpang and Rongkong were justly renowned for their bold and potent Pori Lonjong, Sekomandi, and Porisitutu ikat textiles. Men of prerequisite skill and insight often drew the finest painted cloth and wax-resist banners, known respectively as mawa and sarita.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Whereas the storied Torajan mortuary practices and burial shrouds belong to the realm of the West, sarita banners are used to celebrate the 'life-enhancing ceremonies of the East' that bless the erection of great houses while warding off illness and other malevolent forces. Mawa, or ma'a, as they are sometimes called, serve as visual prayers with a talismanic function to augur bountiful agricultural cycles and the increased fecundity of the buffalo herds.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© New York Public Library

© New York Public Library

Splendid works of art from the island of Sulawesi reside in a diversity of first-rate museum collections including Museum Nasional Indonesia, The Dallas Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Honolulu Museum of Art, de Young Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Fowler Museum at UCLA, The British Museum, and Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

Scholarly approaches to the material culture and art history of Sulawesi can be found in the writings of Roxana Waterston, Hetty Nooy Palm, Robyn Maxwell, Robert Holmgren, Anita Spertus, Jowa Imre Kis-Jovak, and Eric Crystal.

 
 

House Door with Carved Buffalo
© The Fowler Museum at UCLA | California, USA

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

Toraja House Door with Buffalo Motif
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Massachusetts, USA

Figurative Door
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

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

Shroud or Ceremonial Hanging | Papori To Noling
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Figurative Door
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Figurative Door
© The Fowler Museum at UCLA | California, USA

Shroud or Ceremonial Hanging | Papori To Noling
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Banner | Sarita
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ancestor Figure Astride a Boat's Prow
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Vaunted Ancestor Figure from a Mamasa Aristocrat’s House
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Ceremonial Funerary Shield
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Sacred House Divider | Ampang Bilik
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Funerary Figure | Tau-Tau
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Shroud or Ceremonial Hanging | Papori To Noling
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Sacred Banner | Sarita
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Funeral Shroud or Hanging | Porilonjong
© Honolulu Museum of Art | Hawaii, USA

Funerary Figure | Tau-Tau
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sanggori (Detail)
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Banner | Sarita
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Funerary Mask with Brass Sanggori | Kuku | Lake Poso
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Shroud or Ceremonial Hanging | Papori To Noling
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Textile | Mawa' (Detail)
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Textile | Mawa’
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ceremonial Funerary Shield
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Funerary Figure | Tau-Tau
© Honolulu Museum of Art | Hawaii, USA

Sacred Textile | Mawa'
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Funerary Figure | Tau-Tau
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ceremonial Funerary Shield
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Funerary Mask with Brass Sanggori | Kuku | Poso
© Museum Nasional Indonesia

Warrior's Helmet | Poso
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Funerary Shield
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Minahasa Ikat Textile
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Figurative Carvings from Minahasa
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands