A Long Parade of Cultures Leaves a Rich Trail in the Art of Sumatra

Asian Civilizations Museum Watercolor painting of the mythical Buraq by Teungku Teungah Aceh.

The New York Times, By SONIA KOLESNIKOV-JESSOP
Published: August 4, 2010

SINGAPORE — The Buraq is said to have transported the Prophet Muhammad on his over-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and back. It is described as having a white body half-mule and half-donkey, the wings of an eagle and the tail of a peacock.

In a watercolor painting now on display at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore, the Buraq is wearing Dutch clogs on its hooves along with traditional Southeast Asian gelang kaki anklets. The beast carries Islamic royal regalia in a canopy on its back, while two flying birds, similar to a Chinese phoenix, hover above him. To his side, there is a palm tree reminiscent of the Tree of Life motif, which is commonly found in Southeast Asian cultures.

Such an eclectic range of multicultural detail is unusual, especially in a painting that dates from the early 20th century. But this lively watercolor was painted in Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, and such details mirror the various cross-cultural influences on the Indonesian island for more than 2,500 years.

“For centuries, Sumatra was a crossroads for different cultures,” said Alan Chong, the director of the museum. “It was a point of arrival for new ideas and beliefs. We witness here a society extremely open to other cultures and other influences. Sumatra absorbed these and transformed them into new works of art, and I hope that is what our audiences will take away.”

“Sumatra: Isle of Gold,” on show through Nov. 7, examines how various cultures in Sumatra have influenced and, in turn, shaped others through interaction with foreign traders and colonists. Heidi Tan, a senior curator at the museum, said the exhibition has been organized into five main sections to reflect the main streams of cultural influence — Indian, Chinese, Islamic, European and regional.

Sumatra’s strategic location and its wealth of natural resources, including gold and pepper, made it a natural trading crossroads for Indian and Chinese merchants. As early as the third century B.C., Indian records mention Suvarnadvipa or “Gold Island” in reference to Sumatra’s rich gold deposits, especially in the central Minangkabau highlands.

By the seventh century, the largest of 17,000 islands in what is now Indonesia had become the seat of power for the mighty Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom, which dominated much of Southeast Asia for over 400 years.

The Hindu-Buddhist traditions of Sumatra’s Srivijayan rulers are reflected in a number of religious icons from Palembang, where the empire was based. Trade with India also left its mark in textiles as gold leaf was added to hand-painted cloths arriving from the Coromandel coast of India, a wearable form of investment for the nobility.

Indonesian Songket fabrics, in which hand-woven silk or cotton is intricately patterned with gold or silver thread, were also influenced by Indian traditions, Ms. Tan said.

After the decline of Srivijaya, Islamic sultanates established themselves in the coastal areas from the 13th to 16th centuries, developing a tradition of court arts and royal regalia, some of which are on display. Ottoman Turkish craftsmen sent to Aceh in the 16th century left a legacy of jewelry-making techniques, reinforcing Islamic influences. But Hindu-Buddhist features continued and can be seen in royal regalia such as the elaborate Crown of the Sultan of Siak, made of gold with diamonds, rubies and other gems.

On the grave of the Sultan of Langkat in East Sumatra, a boat prow was said to carry his soul into the afterlife, but the figure was carved in the shape of a mythical creature derived from Hindu-Buddhist mythology, with the body of a crocodile and trunk of an elephant.

Evidence of early trade with China has also come to light since the discovery of a 9th century Arab dhow shipwrecked at Belitung Island, off the southeast Sumatran coast, with a cargo of Chinese ceramics. Ms. Tan said research had not yet been able to ascertain when exactly Chinese settlers arrived, but by the early 19th century, many Chinese had intermarried with locals, resulting in local-born communities that were unique for their combination of Chinese, local and European influences.

Chinese settlers brought with them their lacquer-making skills, and their cultural influences on design can be seen in the use of many traditional Chinese symbols and decorative motifs, such as the phoenix and dragon (representing the empress and emperor), fish (fertility) and Buddhist emblems.

On display is a beautiful rebana, a type of local hand drum, whose goat hide has been lacquered and decorated with Chinese motifs of mythological animals.

The island’s rich natural resources also attracted European traders and colonists. The Portuguese and the Dutch started to arrive in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, and European influences left their mark on the royal courts as well as remote tribal communities.

One of the most striking examples of this can be seen in a small wooden ancestor figure from the Nias, a remote tribal community. The statuette would most likely have been used as a ritual object since such figures were believed to possess protective powers. On its head are traditional curls of fern plants and around its neck the representation of a gold necklace. But in his hands is a European-style gun.

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