Timor is the most historically complex of the islands in the Lesser Sundas.

 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

During colonial times, Timor was divided between vying European empires with the west of the island falling to the Dutch and the east to the Portuguese. Presently, West Timor is a part of the Indonesian republic, and after a torturous, bloody struggle, East Timor has become an independent nation. The fragrant sandalwood tree played an important role in Timor's history. The first record of Timor’s sandalwood trade was by Chinese merchants in the 14th century followed by Arabs seeking this precious commodity. In the 16th century, Portugal took a dominant position in the export of this rare wood, only later to be supplanted by the Dutch. 

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The colonial era territorial division of the island and an influx of material wealth were in part determined by the sandalwood trade until, as on neighboring Sumba, the forests were depleted to near ruin. Before conversion and modernity, the Timorese peoples of the interior were warrior and headhunting societies that lived primarily from agriculture and animal husbandry.

Traditional Timorese beliefs held that the sky was associated with a male deity and the earth with its female counterpart. This cosmic compact was reflected in all of life's dualities, demanding ceremonial observances in order to balance, placate, and ritually serve the deities.

The largest single indigenous population of the island are the Atoni, famed for their weaving and flamboyant personal ornaments. Here, however, we are primarily showcasing the artwork created by Tetun speaking groups during the late colonial period.

From early engravings and drawings from the colonial era, we have deduced that the once vibrant carving traditions practiced in Timor have since faded. Only the wooden ancestral figures from the Los Palos region of Timor-Leste have survived in significant numbers. Impressive carvings from the Belu region to the west include marvelous masks, embellished containers, and several figurative doorways.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

In a grand binary arrangement, Belu's royal houses and their interiors are considered to be 'female" while the surrounding outdoor environment is thought to be 'male.' The front entrance, or 'eye of the house' was only for men while the rear door, likened to female genitalia, was placed closer to the house's power centers; its kitchen, the sacred spot where placentas are buried, and the location of the altar honoring the ancestors.  The only time a man in this setting is permitted to traverse a 'female' threshold and pass beyond its doorway is when his child is ceremonially presented to the outside world for the very first time.

Timorese of various tribal affiliations also decorated many of their utilitarian objects with meanders, geometric forms, and totemic symbols. Ceremonial spoons, commonly fashioned from buffalo horn, are among the most emblematic creations of the Tetun and Atoni-speaking peoples of Timor. Spoons were used during festivals, state gatherings, and mortuary feasts, where it was thought that the deceased's soul assumed the guise of a bird. If an owner was of the highest status, a rare human figure might be portrayed on the top of a spoon's handle or featured within an array of saurian and avian imagery amid geometric motifs, dramatically highlighted by pierced and excised areas.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Kevin Montague

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© B.A.G. Vroklage

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Woven cloth is ubiquitous on the island of Timor. It is created in an exceptional diversity of styles and colors, often employing multiple, painstakingly executed techniques. To the Timorese, the sarong and the selimut, meaning blanket, are symbols of identity, place, and rank.  Fashioned and worn by royal women in Belu, the noble, antique tais feto (tubular garments) are accorded pride of place among Indonesia’s most breathtaking textiles.

Stunning examples of Timorese artistry are situated in museums including The National Gallery of Australia, The Dallas Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, de Young Museum, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, and Musée du Quai-Branly.

Scholarly insights on Timor's heritage can be found in the writings of David Hicks, Herman Schulte Nordholt, Roy Hamilton, Joanna Barrkman, Ruth Barnes, Marie-Louise Nabholz-Kartaschoff, Nico de Jonge, and Robyn Maxwell.

 
 

Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Belu Female House Door | Oromattan
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Royal Horse Blanket | Belu
© National Gallery of Australia

Belu Ceremonial Lime Container | Ahu Mama
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

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

Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Belu Female House Door | Oromattan
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Atoni Ceremonial Horn Spoon | Nura Dikun
© Yale University Art Gallery | Texas, USA

Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Atoni Seated Figure with Bird Crest
© Yale University Art Gallery | Texas, USA

Belu  Ceremonial House Door and Posts © Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Belu Ceremonial House Door and Posts
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Spoon of the King of Mandeu | Nura Dikun
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Spoon of the King of Mandeu | Nura Dikun
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Belu Ceremonial House Door
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Spoon | Nura Dikun
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ceremonial Spoon | Nura Dikun
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Ceremonial Spoon | Nura Dikun
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Aristocratic Women’s Tubular Sarong | Tais Feto
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Amanuban Blanket | Ikat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Belu Ceremonial Mask | Biola
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Atoni Ancestor Figure with Offering Bowl
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Carved Panel
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Aristocratic Women’s Tubular Sarong | Tais Feto
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Belu Ritual Royal Sarong
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Royal Woman’s Tubular Sarong (Detail) | Tais Feto
The Dallas Museum of Art | USA