Monday, October 20, 2008

Exclusive Interview: Mark Johnson on Indonesian art

So far on this site we haven't really touched on the subject of Indonesian art, so let's rectify that in blowout fashion. Mark Johnson is one of North America's premier experts on the subject, running his own tribal art-dealership (check it out here) and having dealt in the field for more than 25 years. We sat down with him to discuss the beauty and complexity of Indonesian culture.

Everything Indonesia: When it comes to Indonesian art, most Westerners think of narrow areas like batik and wayang. What should people know about the whole spectrum of tribal art?

Mark Johnson: Indonesia is at the crossroads of Asia and Oceania with two very connected, yet distinct, art and culture styles that also have hybrid elements of both. The cultures of Java and Bali (along with Madura, Lombok, and Sumbawa, the lowlands of Sumatra, and coastal regions of Borneo and Sulawesi) have centuries of influence from India, China, Southeast Asia, and Arabia. Their art styles would be recognizable to scholars and collectors of South, East, and Southeast Asian art. The people that inhabit the “outer islands” of Sumba, Flores, Timor, the Moluccas, as well as the interior and highland regions of Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi have more in common with the Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. Oceanic scholars and collectors would find much in common with this grouping. In fact nearly all of these peoples in this region are part of the great Austronesian expansion into Island Asia and the Oceania and in fact are related linguistically and culturally, with roots going back several millennium. Indonesian runs the whole gamete of tribal and classic Asian art. In the so-called “classical” art world, there are ancient stone monuments, megaliths, bronzes, terracottas, and sculptures similar to other ancient Hindu-Buddhists cultures of India and Cambodia. Even today, Bali and parts of Java perform dance routines taken directly from Indian Hindu mythology. The so-called “primitive” societies create fantastic masks, carve incredible wood sculptures, forge metal objects, weave intricate textiles, basketry, and beadwork at a level more sophisticated that most other and more well-known tribal cultures in other parts of the world. And yet it is common for both “classical” and “primitive” cultures to blend elements of both. You can find animist roots in Java and Bali as well as Hindu and Chinese elements in the remotest jungles of Borneo.

EI: How and why did you first get interested in this field?

MJ: I was originally influenced by Central Asian carpets and textiles collected by a few friends I knew back in the early 1970’s. I also liked the idea of traveling to interesting parts of the world and made a decision to quit my job and explore Asia, while looking for inexpensive works of tribal art. I really did not expect it to go anywhere other than having the experience, but in the mid 1970’s travel in Asia was cheap, and there was relatively easy access to authentic artifacts. I was lucky enough to find buyers for many of the items I bought, which allowed me to return repeatedly to Asia and continue this budding business. I had also made my way to Sumatra and Malaysia while focusing on the Central Asia, so I had gained some familiarity with artifacts from that region as well and eventually shifted my emphasis to Island Southeast Asia. I became fascinated with other art forms, such as sculpture, beadwork, and masks, and ultimately incorporated these items into my inventory, along with the textiles that had been my primary interest. I now specialize in art from all of the Asian tribal cultures, but my particular interest is in the artifacts of the various Dayak cultures of Borneo Island.

EI: What distinctive styles of art stand out for the individual islands, from Sumatra to Sulawesi to Kalimantan to Nusa Tenggara?

MJ: The tribal cultures of these particular islands have many similarities, including some artistic styles, but they are also know for specific individual works of art. Nias Island is well known for stone megaliths, architectural elements, and small to mid-size wooden ancestor figures, often topped with elaborate carved crowns. The Batak culture of north Sumatra Island (around Lake Toba) carves wood shaman’s staffs whose lengths are covered with mythical ancestors, animals, and human figures. They carved magical wood charms, often in a very refined style, that are brought to life with the essence of human or animal parts. The Lampung region of southern Sumatra is famous for woven textiles that depict ships and ancestors that relate to these island cultures connection to sea migrations and life transitions. Borneo (or Kalimantan) has it all: Incredible wood sculptures of ancestors and spirits; beautifully painted and carved panels for houses and granaries; wonderful weavings; an vast range of basketry, colorful beaded panels with anthropomorphic figures that adorn hats, jackets, skirts, baskets, and baby carriers; fantastic masks, that morph the images of man, animals, birds, and spirits; and the most elaborate funerary objects such as ossuaries carved in the form of dragons, deer, water snakes, and hornbills that are place up high on ironwood columns. The Toraja people of the highlands of Sulawesi are famous for mysterious, almost alien like, wood ancestor figures that are place in balconies carved out of limestone cliff faces. The tombs themselves are chiseled out of these same cliffs and sealed with wood doors decorated with buffalo or human motifs. The primary islands of Nusa Tenggara (Flores, Sumba, Alor, Lembata, Roti, Savu, Timor) are famous for their ikat dyed textiles. Many of the islands, especially Sumba and Timor also have stone statues and monuments. Farther out from Timor (Tanimbar, Leti, Babar) they are known for delicately carved wood ancestor figures and shrines. All of these culture groups build traditional houses with cosmological and symbolical features, such as roof lines that resemble boats and wall panels with status and protective symbols.

EI: Since the Dayak people are of particular interest to you, what is it about their art that speaks to you?

MJ: They do it all and they are highly skilled in all of these artistic medium, especially wood sculptures, textiles, beadwork, architectural elements, weaponry (shields and swords), tattoos, and dress. Besides the vast range of artistic styles, the art and motifs are more unique (even within Indonesia) and seems to have a deeper root into an archaic past. Some of the oldest wood sculptures resemble Hawaiian Tikis and clearly are prototypes to much of the more recognized forms found in the Pacific. Yet, you can see a clear connection to other ancient mainland cultures, such as the Dong Son of Vietnam, the Dian of Yunnan, and the Shang Dynasty of China. They also use abstraction, motifs in negative space, and other highly complex and sophisticated art techniques, only recently appreciated in the West, yet they have been doing this for centuries. It would take many pages of information to scratch the surface of the range and complexity of Dayak art.

EI: In the U.S., is appreciation of the beauty and complexity of Southeast Asian tribal art growing?

MJ: It has steadily for years. My first awareness of art from this area was in the 1970’s, and it seemed very few others were interested or even knew where Indonesia was located. There had been some earlier exhibitions and sales of Indonesia art before this time, but really not much and almost nothing in the mainstream art world. By the 1980’s more and more Americans were starting to travel to exotic locales, such as Indonesia (especially Bali). This certainly contributed to more awareness of these cultures and their art. Also, around this time a few major museums started exhibiting Indonesia art more publicly, often with catalogs that made it easier to appreciate the forms. Today, most collectors of tribal art are aware of Indonesia and many that only collected African or other Oceanic art in the past are now seriously looking at collecting in this area, especially since the prices are generally less expensive. However, there is still a lot of ignorance about the art of this area and more needs to be done to properly promote the highlights. And unfortunately, but inevitably, there are thousands of fakes and reproductions available in the shops of Jakarta and Bali that confuse the marketplace.

EI: What's been your most memorable experience of travelling in Indonesia?

MJ: There are so many, but I loved traveling through the Toraja highlands looking at the old tombs in the cliff faces. And once, back in the 1980’s, I sailed with a small group on a large catamaran throughout Nusa Tenggara, visiting Lombok, Komodo, Flores, Alor, Lembata, Sumba, Savu, Roti, Ndau, Timor. I also spent a month on Lake Toba (the first place I visited in Indonesia, back in 1976), which was one of the most interesting and peaceful times of my life. Mostly I love the people, who have always been so amazing friendly and helpful. And lastly, you just can’t beat the incredible variety and flavors of the food! Selamat makan!

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