Ancestor Culture in Southeast Asia

Headdress (wutulai), Luang Island, south Moluccas, 19th century or earlier,
gold, 30.5 x 20.3 x 4.5 cm, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii, gift of the Christensen Fund. On the island of Luang, gold is worn at ceremonies as a marker of wealth, prestige and power. Noble families control treasuries of splendid jewellery, plates, discs, headdresses and crowns. From Ancestor Culture in Southeast Asia

This month From the Archives looks at an exhibition on the ancestor culture of Southeast Asia, which was the first large exhibition to explore works of art made in Southeast Asia to honour the ancestors and the spirits of nature. It was also the first major exhibition of animist art from Southeast Asia to be held in Australia. Life, Death & Magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian Ancestral Art introduced objects that were vibrant, powerful and often frightening, alongside supernatural art from across the vast Southeast Asian region.

Featuring 250 works of art, presented in six sections, the exhibition explored the centuries of Southeast Asian ancestral arts and culture from ancient times to the present. The show revealed these ancestral arts in its many forms, including both every-day and ritual objects, from dramatic sculptures and grand architectural pieces in wood and stone to vibrant textiles and intricate gold jewellery. The works came from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, East Timor, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, as well as southern China with the loan objects drawn from museums across Asia, Europe and the US, displayed alongside objects from the National Gallery of Australia’s own exceptional collection.

For thousands of years, communities in these areas have created remarkable art expressing the region’s most ancient and enduring spiritual beliefs and social organisation. The exhibition celebrated the antiquity and continuity of animism as the inspiration for exquisite objects in bronze, stone, wood, gold and fibre.

Ancestral and Animist Beliefs

Ancestral and animist beliefs have been the focus of spiritual life and social organisation for thousands of years and was widespread before the introduction of Hinduism, Buddhism – and later Islam and Christianity. These beliefs continue to be respected in Southeast Asia, especially in remote islands and isolated mountainous areas. Exquisite and powerful objects are made to appease the ancestors and spirits whose blessings ensure fertility and success in important events in the cycle of life, especially birth, marriage and death. If neglected, these spirits can be vengeful and malicious.

Funerals, in particular, inspire the creation of spectacular works of art in ancestor culture in Southeast Asia. The exhibition included superbly decorated coffins, fearsome protective sculptures and shrouds to honour the recently deceased as well as distant ancestors. There were also objects of great mystery that were used in magical rites, including shamans’ robes, potent amulets, and divination books.

Animism centres on the power of nature spirits and the souls of the dead to intervene malevolently or benevolently in daily life. Beauty and ferocity are equally important in Southeast Asian animist art. Pleasing designs attract the blessings of the ancestors whilst grotesque or ugly and frightening images help dispel evil beings. Many objects on display were simultaneously appealing and menacing, even macabre.

Special Ceremonies in Ancestor Culture of Southeast Asia

However, attention has also to be paid to the present and the future. Communities seek prosperity and wish for abundant herds, successful crops and healthy children whilst often living in a precarious physical and supernatural environment, at the mercy of evil spirits and unpredictable forces of nature. Manipulation of magic, close adherence to rituals and the creation of powerful art are all central to pacifying the supernatural world and ensuring cosmic balance. Particular attention is paid to rites associated with important events in the life-cycles of people and crops.

Events such as planting and harvest, birth, marriage and death are all occasions for special ceremonies. Utilitarian and ritual objects – clothing, jewellery, thrones, headhunting weapons, houses, vessels, weaving implements – are elaborately decorated with protective motifs to ensure clan prosperity and village wellbeing. Fertility – of people, land and livestock – is the constant focus of art and ritual in rural Southeast Asia. Large families, bountiful harvests and increasing herds are synonymous. All are signs of spiritual harmony and a confirmation of the balance of human activities and nature. The uncertainty and unpredictability of the physical and natural worlds provides the impetus for many of these rituals. Their enactments require and inspire great works of art.

Motifs Used in Ancestor Culture of Southeast Asia

Motifs of abundance are emblazoned on all aspects of art and architecture and play an important part in ancestor culture of Southeast Asia. Grains of rice, herds of water buffalo, and many healthy children are the manifestations of prosperity. Their abundance is evidence of the blessing of the ancestors, and the tangible and symbolic outcome of the pairing of male and female elements that are fundamental features of the art of ancestral Southeast Asia. Imagery abounds alluding to the fecundity of ancestors in human form and of the domestic animals that Southeast Asian communities depend on for food as well as blood sacrifices to ancestral deities and nature spirits.

For over 2,000 years in many parts of ancestral Southeast Asia, power and wealth have been accrued by noble families, with social relations within a community ordered in hierarchical ways. Villages are divided between dominant and subservient clans and lineages, and governed accordingly. The superiority of one family over another is often dependent on genealogical and legendary descent from the founding ancestors of the village. This link to the ancestors ensures that the leading families control ritual activities and the opening of new agricultural land. The nobles who dwell in the great house claim direct descent from its original founders and to the inherited wealth and power imbued in the heirlooms of the house.

Emblems of High Status

In some communities, and in certain arenas of endeavour, high status can be earned. Prowess in fields deemed economically and spiritually important can cement the fame of certain individuals, especially within the elite families. For women this is pertinent to skill in textile making, and especially a remarkable knowledge of dyeing. The feats of male warriors, head-hunters, or great voyagers who return with exotic and rare objects for the family treasury, are much admired

In the section of the exhibition of ancestor culture in Southeast Asia that dealt with death, the art of burial and the honour with which the dead were buried was examined. The act involved extraordinary care, often laying out expansive graves filled with splendid gifts for the deceased and their glorification in the afterlife. In many animist cultures, funerals continue to be the most spectacular and extravagant rites, for one of the most important tasks of the living is to ensure that the deceased are sent satisfied into the next world. To carry out these proceedings successfully the utmost consideration and the greatest art are required.

The Nature of Funerals

Funerals, in particular, inspire the creation of spectacular works of art. The exhibition included superbly decorated grave goods, elaborate coffins, fearsome protective funerary sculptures, shrouds and a spectacular array of sculptures and altars in honour of the recently deceased and distant ancestors.This art is well documented and recorded by studying burial sites and rituals throughout Southeast Asia with ancient burial sites often revealing the beauty and complexity of objects from early civilisations across the region. The elaborately decorated pots, impressive bronze drums and bells, rich gold ornaments, and the striking array of weaponry were made to celebrate life and death. Beautifully decorated or formed metal objects were also special items in elaborate systems of exchange along the great rivers of mainland Southeast Asia and the sea routes into the islands.

Similar objects, shapes and designs are still prominent in the art of many Southeast Asian communities, where the finest valuables are often still buried with the dead. These continuities and similarities are most evident amongst societies who trace their beliefs and practices back to the ways of their ancestors. Numerous traditional communities across Southeast Asia maintain strong beliefs in benevolent and malevolent supernatural forces, from spirits of nature, the gods of grain and demons of pestilence, to the ever-present mythological creator deities and the souls of the recently deceased. Through festivals and rituals, and associated art, communities seek to appease disruptive forces, to gain protection and ensure survival, wellbeing and prosperity.

The recently deceased are the ancestors of the future, especially for members of the village elite. Enormous energy and wealth are expended on funeral rites to honour the dead in a manner appropriate to their social standing in the family and community. Lengthy and complex mortuary celebrations, sometimes held years after death, ensure a soul’s safe passage to the ancestral realm where it will oversee the activities and welfare of the living. Failure to appease a spirit can impel it to join the many other destructive spiritual beings capable of sabotaging the community’s quest for fertility and wellbeing.

Ancestor Worship in Southeast Asia

In animist Southeast Asia, the origins of all life and of the skills, knowledge, and materials that sustain human existence were taught to the community’s forebears by the creating deities themselves. The most important features of landscape, from life-sustaining crops to topographical landmarks, are also the result of ancestral intervention.

In Southeast Asia, ancestor worship is also linked to the ability to communicate with the spirit world and is a significant path to power within a community. The precarious situation of the living is further complicated by souls of the dead, ancestral spirits, and nature deities, who can interfere either benevolently or malevolently in human affairs. Communities rely on individuals with powers to communicate beyond the mortal realm in order to see, predict, mediate and control these uncertainties.

Throughout Southeast Asia village priests, seers and shamans are highly esteemed and also feared for their extraordinary powers which are channelled to secure harmony and ward off disaster. The widespread practice of sorcery requires village priests to perform rites that abate evil spirits and appease the gods. Priests and shamans require potent tools and medicines. Selecting the most auspicious day to hold a funeral, plant rice seeds, set out on a journey or headhunting expedition, or start the construction of a house requires expert supernatural authority.

Consultation Through Magic

Through the consultation of magic paraphernalia, the correct moment is calculated for important activities to begin. Performed by village priests or ritual specialists, these procedures are essential means of maintaining the cosmic order, capturing lost souls, ensuring fertility and protecting villages against crop failure, war, epidemic and other disasters.

Genealogies trace lineages back to significant ancestral figures as evidence of rights to superiority in the social and ritual arena of the village. More recent predecessors may also have attained the status of ancestral spirits, largely through the good offices of their living kin. Since ancestors continue to interfere, for good or ill, in everyday affairs, veneration through sacrifices, offerings, prayers and specific rites is necessary to ensure that their benevolence endures.

The creation and veneration of images of ancestors and creator beings is widespread among the peoples of Southeast Asia. The sculptures, which are attended to with great consideration, attract and are inhabited by the spirits of the dead. As ancestors are directly involved in fertility and plenty, pairs of male and female spirits are among the most prominent and important depictions.

Rituals in Southeast Asia

This comprehensive exploration of the complex cycle of life and its rituals in Southeast Asia was a first for an Australian audience. The museum was also able to include several recent acquisitions alongside works that had not been on public display before. Among the key objects on show was a monumental wood sculpture of a magical horse with two riders (one male and one female) representing the creator ancestors who are crucial to the success of all endeavours. The exhibition also gave the museum an opportunity to display its famous 6th-century sculpture to the public, known as ‘The Bronze Weaver,’ which shows a woman weaving while breastfeeding her child.

Life, Death and Magic in Southeast Asian Ancestral Art was on show at the National Gallery of Australia from 13 August to 31 October, 2010.  A catalogue accompanied the exhibition.