Subject: Husi Bei Ala Timor Sira Nia Liman: From the Hands of our
Ancestors Art and Craft from Timor Leste
This article, along with photos of artefacts, is published in Arena magazine, June 2009 Issue 10, Melbourne Australia..
Husi Bei Ala Timor Sira Nia Liman: From the Hands of our Ancestors Art and Craft from Timor Leste at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Darwin until July 2009
Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: ‘Now the real problems start’. (Chris Marker voiceover from Sunless, 1984 referring to Cabral, Guinea Bissau)
In September 1999, just five days after the East Timorese voted for independence Indonesian militia groups supervised by the army and police destroyed, looted and left hundreds of artefacts from the then Provincial Museum in Dili to rot in the monsoonal rains The director and former resistance veteran Virgilio Simith, who had over the years of struggle made a inventory of the collection, could only watch in horror as hundred-year-old carvings, weavings, jewellery and other antiquities disappeared or nearly disintegrated in what appeared to be a ‘final solution’ on the part of the Soeharto regime. General Benny Moerdani, one of the regime’s architects of the 1975 invasion, had continually warned civil servants in Dili about claiming a national identity: ‘Don’t dream about having a state of Tim Tim,. there is no such thing as a Tim Tim nation, only an Indonesian nation .If you try to make your own state it will be crushed’.
Two years later at the East Timor nation building conference in Lisbon, Senhor Simith, now Secretary of State of Culture in the new government, identified the looting of cultural patrimony as one of the most devastating war crimes afflicted on people who had been under occupation. The deliberate pillaging and arson, where entire villages and their contents were scorched, began in 1976 when livestock, women, children, crops and, significantly, art objects, kept in traditional lulik, or ceremonial houses were stolen or destroyed. As Timorese society was based on kingship, with the local chiefs liurais presiding over the contents of these houses, these cultural objects were the pawns in the strategies of violence and extortion and became illicit treasure, an Indonesian ‘inside job’ which saw the country’s heritage flogged off to international collectors and illegal art markets for decades.
Witnesses still alive from the early days of the invasion talk of systematic looting obviously directed by senior figures of the invading military forces. Domingos da Costa da Silva, testifying at the Truth Commission in 2004 remembers militia stealing from him ‘all our property including 15 morten (wedding beads) 76 belak (breastplates),7 kaibauk (headdresses), 30 liras (Portuguese silver coins), 2 murak bulu ayam (feathered headdress) 4 golden combs … We were left with nothing but bruises’.
Just ten years after the end of this culturcide I’m sitting in the Darwin museum and art gallery surrounded by a collection of ancient and contemporary art and craft which has been assembled from the remains of the restored National Collection salvaged by by UNATET forces in a operation initiated by Darwin Museum staff. There are also objects collected by Colin Jack Hinton, Lusophile and founding director of the Darwin Museum , who had been collecting objects of archaeological and antiquarian interest such as ceramics, baskets and tais weavings since 1965. . But this collection, too, had been partially lost, eerily around the same time as the invasion of Dili, by the winds of Cyclone Tracy. Other objects were donated by Darwinites who, in the 1960s, went on holidays to Bacau on TAA’s weekly service to the then Portuguese Timor (it is still common to still find tais weavings in opportunity shops in Darwin). The East Timorese exiles who live in Darwin’s northern suburbs contributed objects they had kept at home for decades, many of them acquired by the Museum as late as 2008. Other items were then loaned from small heritage collections in East Timor. This exhibition is a world first, from the first independent nation of the 21st century, staged outside of its homeland. Never before has the island’s art been viewed in this context. . At the end of the show interactive touch screens can be activated to see the huge collections of other artefacts in the Fundacao Oriente Museum in Portugal and the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, curiously all dated 1888 from a single expedition by a Dutch collector.
Talking to Virgilio Simith, with his dulcet Portuguese tones softly narrating the stories behind of the artefacts, I quickly surmise that this is no ethnographic showcase of lost art from a forgotten civilization.. There's a palpable sense here that even the smallest object belongs to a larger narrative of human touch and continuity with the past and the future. The objects appear at once beautiful and intimidating, the delicately carved tortoiseshell hair combs, wooden horses, lime boxes to hold powder mixed with either poison or love potion, wedding tais wrap skirts dyed with indigo and buffalo dung, and house filials in the shape of birds. I’m in awe; what looks like props from an ornate period film are actually in use, part of the day-to-day life of contemporary Timorese society, particularly the wedding tais skirts for men and women. There is all manner of silver filigree jewellery, glass trade beads introduced by the Portuguese traders from Gujarat in Western India, myriad accoutrements made by a former regal society engaged with the old world of traders, artisans and merchants from as far away as Venice and Vietnam. The pivotal role of craftmaking in defining wealth and their strategic value in the form of dowries and clan ‘artbanks’ is one of the revelations of the collection which characterised the Portuguese-speaking East Timorese world of the 1600s.
Standing in front of his favourite pieces, a 100-year-old odamatan or ceremonial door made from single piece of felled wood, decorated with sophisticated geometric abstract designs, Simith talks of the objects as material culture. Each object contains the history of a particular area, he explains, and also the people’s cosmological sense of the world. Some doors carved with birds indicating creation, crocodiles appear as totems, other doors feature the liurai in relief in full ceremonial attire. The doors guard the entrance to the sacred world inside the sacred houses. This is a dying art according to Simith. Other art forms on show are being resurrected and relearned and tais markets have reopened in recent times. However, intense logging by the Indonesian regime during the occupation means there are few forest trees left with a trunk circumference wide enough to use as doors even though the function of doors as the entrance to lulik remains strong.
The two most eye catching tais are indicative of East Timor’s Portuguese colonial history. One shows the intricate woven figures of a Christian nativity scene made in Oecussi in 2007 and while the other is woven with the international Marxist revolutionary catchcry of ‘Patria ou Morte, Venceremos’ Country or Death, We will win made in 1999. These are contemporary objects, worn around the neck and often presented to visitors and dignitaries. In these tais religion politics and culture are fused, something that Portuguese colonialism paradoxically created, a syncretic art that developed with no prodding from the official administration. Under the Portuguese, Simith explains, ’culture was isolated inside the community. There was no official cultural presence except for dancing or music. The dictatorship [of Salazar] did not invest in art but got traditional groups to perform at official ceremonies. The church viewed cultural objects as pagan. Some Catholic padres and seminarians had a political agenda that they implemented in East Timor. In the centuries of colonisation the church would build a chapel alongside the lulik so the elements of each became integrated. Bit by bit traditional culture diminished. The colonial administration neither destroyed nor invested in it’.
So the population continued to practice indigenous culture as well as the imposed Portuguese / European structure which saw traditional dress banned in favour of suits and dresses in the 1950s. The haircombs on display with crosses carved out, the figurines which pray hands clasped, are unique representations not necessarily found in the Lusophone world. In the 1940s Brazilian writer Gilberto Freyre coined the term ‘Luso-Tropicalismo’ to describe the policy of a mixed-race culture of mestizos who were the imaginary, happy and exotic citizens of a supposedly civilising Portuguese empire. While this colonial propaganda was rarely applied with success in Angola, Goa or Brasil East Timor, through isolation and geography became, a specific euro-asiatic racial group whose traditional social strata of kings, noblemen and commoners, mirrored the aristocratic attitudes of the administrator Portuguese who kept slaves as domestic help. Unlike the British in Australia or Federal governments up to the 1980s, the British explorers in Australia or even Federal governments up until the 1980s who collectively viewed aboriginal art as worthless or the product of pagan ritual, the Portuguese tended to allow their subjects to exist in a kind of cultural formalin, hence the longevity of the art and the ultimate failure of the Indonesians to exterminate it.
There’s a temptation to describe the objects on display as wholly ‘supernatural’ or magic, but many of them like the betel-nut containers and weaving looms are utilitarian and items like them are still utilised I wander through the rooms a video plays in the background, and I hear the sounds of batucada drumming. On closer examination I see a group, dressed in tais, wearing headdresses,and breastplates, among them a man dancing with an elaborate kaibauk on his head.. It’s not a video from Womad but a field recording of a contemporary village scene. I am reminded of the imaginary film I envisaged when I entered the space. At the very end of the gallery a section of contemporary paintings hang. Again they are loaned from private collections in Darwin and Dili, but many are from Arte Moris, the Living Art foundation where young East Timorese artists work, mostly on canvas, but sometimes on old tais recycled due to lack of materials. The pictures are bright, mostly portraits, painted in a folk realist style reminiscent of modernist African and Latin American art. There’s a deep humanity in these pictures, done in a time of peace. Some of the work depicts Dili burning, one is a naïve view of Darwin houses and streets painted from the memory of temporary exile. Virgilio Simith describes the work of the foundation as ‘therapy for people, improvised sentiments of a real situation which happened to them’. Paul Stewart, brother of assassinated Balibo 5 journalist Tony Stewart refers to Arte Moris as akin to Andy Warhol’s Factory.
The lavish catalogue is one of the most exciting byproducts of the show. In three languages, Tetun, English and Portuguese, it is a textbook put together by Joanna Barrkman, the curator of the show. Each secondary school in East Timor is to receive a copy as a document to source the country’s rich legacy, but also as evidence of an inspired collaboration that saw Barrkman train East Timorese in cultural preservation and maintenance, as well as a less than 12-month process of transporting objects from The exhibition is the result of a partnership with MAGNT (Darwin) and an Ausaid Australia Dili in the midst of the attempted assassination of the President Jose Ramos Horta. Leadership Awards Fellowship Training Program whereby MAGNT hosted three staff from the national Directorate of Culture for several months.
This article, along with photos of artefacts, is published in Arena magazine, June 2009 Issue 10, Melbourne Australia..
Vikki Riley is a freelance writer based in Darwin. firstname.lastname@example.org