Jakarta. The golden dragon marked a striking contrast to the lacquered maroon color of the jar. The motif, which is an age-old symbol of good luck, perhaps delivered just that to the merchant who used it to transport cargo ranging from wine to spices throughout Indonesia. Made in the 19th century during the reign of the Ching Dynasty, the days of the jar’s use as a utilitarian item has long gone. But the appeal behind its clean, simple aesthetic lines and ornate decoration remain, making the jar a prized collector’s item.
In another corner, an unearthly looking costume stares out at the viewer with hollow, yet piercing eyeholes carved out of the end of deer antlers. The ensemble, which is also comprised of a mask, shirt and shorts of dried grass, make up the costume worn by shamans from Papua’s Asmat tribe. While the outfit’s days of invoking nature’s powers are long gone, the raw, primal power emanating from the garb can still mesmerize viewers.
The jar and shaman costume are part of a study in contrasts, due to the former’s sophisticated make and the latter’s primitive, elemental nature. The items make up part of the Bentara Budaya Jakarta cultural center’s collection of nearly 1,200 ceramic and woodwork artifacts throughout Indonesia. The items, which date back to the eight to the 19th centuries, were collected over two decades ago.
“Bentara Budaya’s ceramics collection was compiled by Kompas Gramedia founder P.K. Ojong following decades of searching and appraisal. The ceramics vary from earthenware and stoneware work of various forms and sizes,” says the exhibition’s catalogue.
“The woodwork from the Asmat tribe was brought back by Kompas journalist Rudy Badil, after a series of trips to Papua in the 1980s. Both the woodwork and the ceramics have been stored in cold underground chambers. While this process might help preserve them, it detracts from our purpose of acquiring them, which is to share their artistic and historical values with the public.”
Aside from catching the viewer’s eye, the myriad of jars in all shapes and sizes reflect their multitude of purposes and the Indonesian archipelago’s vital role in trade throughout Asia, a role it continues to play until today. One 17th-century Ming Dynasty vase, which was perhaps used to carry and preserve wine and other foods and beverages, was decorated with lotus flowers. Sacred to Hindus and Buddhists, the motif indicates that commodities were not the only items that were traded but also people, cultures, as well as beliefs and ideas. Metaphysical decorations aren’t the only motifs in hand, as other vases feature courtly Chinese scholars and landscapes.
The Asmat collection is just as riveting, starting with the tribe’s spears. Used for hunting and war, they are ultimate examples of sustainability. Made with shafts of ironwood and other hardwoods like the bark of sago trees, the point is made of natural materials like the beaks of birds and the claws of cassowaries. The shields are also a rare form of art. Featuring totem-like motifs, the red, white and black shields attracts with the designs of animals, while the expressive eyes and mouth give the design a life of its own.
The smaller items in the collection are also masterpieces of their art forms. The oldest pieces, such as a set of Tang Dynasty vases from the eighth to ninth centuries, didn’t make much of an impression due to their lack of ornamentation. But they derive their power from longevity, as their basic design and glazing have remained unchanged for over a thousand years. Their influence can be seen in a set of Ching Dynasty seats from the 18th to 19th centuries. While the porcelain materials and iconic blue glazing of the illustration set it apart from their older counterparts, they share the same simple, clean lines and aesthetics as well as their high level of workmanship.
A piggybank found at the Trowulan archaeological site in East Java reflected a cultural cooperation between China and Indonesia. Keeping with the symbolism of a pig as a symbol of prosperity, the earthenware piece also features a distinctively Javanese touch through its stylized, almost abstract motif for the animal.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 6, 2014