Subject: Our neighbour's heirlooms

Our neighbour's heirlooms

The Australian

Nicolas Rothwell | November 21, 2008

SUN and moon, life and death, male and female, metal and textile, profane and sacred: the thought world of East Timor rests on a base of elaborate, long-preserved dualities, as does its art tradition.

The jewels of that tradition, magnificently explored and subtly presented, go on view in a landmark exhibition at Darwin's Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory this weekend. From the Hands of Our Ancestors (Husi Bei Ala Timor Sira Nia Liman) is at once a serene overview of works from Australia's close northern neighbour and a way stage in East Timor's journey towards national revival. Composed from a marriage of the museum's superb Timorese holdings and the prize objects from the former provincial museum in Dili, this show -- swiftly mounted, wonderfully curated -- ushers its viewers into an unfamiliar realm. Here, birds are spirit guides for the deceased soul, turtle-shell bracelets protect the wearer from negative energies and crocodiles are arbiters of guilt and innocence. Here, during the days of the full moon, mermaids cry tears of magic that, when obtained by a cunning man, can be used as a sure means of attracting women; here male and female compose the linking opposites of life, indeed the ritual interdependence of the two sexes is so total, so seamless, that it seems quite natural to compare their relationship with that between a plate and a spoon.

It was during the upheavals of September 1999 in Dili, following the East Timorese independence referendum, that the processes that have culminated in this exhibition were set in train. The museum building was broken into and ransacked. More than two-thirds of the art and antiquities collection was destroyed, looted or soaked by the wet season's repeated downpours.

As Cecilia de Assis, head of East Timor's directorate of culture, writes in the trilingual catalogue accompanying this show, the destruction of cultural heritage was widespread and went far beyond the museum walls: "Havoc was wreaked on national heirlooms within the community, such as sacred objects held within traditional ceremonial houses."

Under the ensuing UN transitional administration, an emergency initiative to secure and recover the remaining artworks began at once. Darwin was the nearest Australian city.

The Darwin museum's specialist staff swung into action and helped rescue more than 500 objects: today the core of the new national collection of East Timor. A phase of reconstitution and conservation followed, backed by a large-scale transfer of expertise between the curators and museum personnel of the two cities, partners in an exercise of cultural retrieval on the grand scale.

Given this backdrop, From the Hands of Our Ancestors serves as a poignant invocation of Timor's deep past, as well as offering a first sketch of the new nation's creative future. MAGNT's Southeast Asian art curator, Joanna Barrkman, has crafted a display that summons up the complexity of the island's multiple traditions and the propensity of its artisans to exploit and rework foreign influences: Gujarati Indian, Chinese, Malay and Portuguese designs and patterns have all been incorporated into the weavings and ceramics shown in the lushly painted galleries.

The exhibition is artfully constructed to usher its visitors deep into a supernatural world, where reverence for ancestors is expressed in ornate figure carving and architecture. Traditional Timorese sacred houses, presided over by Mother Earth, hold in their interior "a dark, warm inner protected space, characterised by life-giving immobility and constancy, a stable point of orientation in the changing world", according to Barrkman's catalogue. Ancient house doors, carved with images of rulers and totemic animals, surround the exhibition's central chambers, where swords and jewels, masks and precious ceramics gleam in the low light. At the heart of the island's belief system were the wood-carved figurines of ancestors. In old days, these were made by ritual specialists, then incised in stylised fashion and placed beside a gravesite until their eventual disintegration in the tropical landscape. Early carvings in stone also have been found, in the Bobonaro region, near the centre of the island. Twenty of these hieratic, solemn figures are in the Dili collection; three of them form the high point of the Darwin display.

But the turmoil of recent decades has weakened the hold of this art form. Barrkman writes, rather bleakly, that local ceremonial leaders regard the carving tradition as under threat of imminent extinction.

This pattern holds for much of Timorese ancestral culture, which rarely has been accorded a clear, detailed, scholarly overview of the kind it receives here. In fact, no comprehensive museum survey of Timorese culture and tradition had been mounted until this exhibition, although significant collections of the island's artworks are gathered in ethnographic museums as far afield as Lisbon, St Petersburg and Berlin. A handy touch-screen in one of the MAGNT galleries displays the highlights of these overseas holdings for the curious to inspect.

Timor's cultural pattern down the millennia was unusual: it was a crossroads island, constantly subject to the influence of incoming traders, constantly absorbing the strange and new, yet always assimilating those influences into a central, stable set of paradigms.

One result was a regular modulation of the local textile and artefact traditions: "The designs and visual language of Timor were continually being recast by artisans, who interpreted imaginative thought within a strict framework that accumulated into a distinctive indigenous expression."

Such was the paradox of the island's past: subject to repeated intrusions, yet ever more enduringly itself. Can that pattern last in these fraught post-independence times, when the wellsprings of tradition are at last brought into danger by that most disquieting and levelling of all pressures, globalising modernity? In the face of such uncertainty, the deeper aims behind From the Hands of Our Ancestors come into focus.

"We hope that we can bring attention and support to the artisans still living in today's Timor, people who have inherited the skills of their forefathers: carvers, metal-smiths, jewellery-makers," Barrkman says. And a side gallery testifies to a fresh art current emerging, nurtured in part by returning exiles, in the Timorese landscape of today: quietly labelled as "new impressions", this sequence of contemporary paintings seeks to describe the origins and first steps of the fledgling state.

Sadly, yet tellingly, the exhibition will not be travelling back to Dili for a home season. There is no new museum in the East Timorese capital and the old provincial museum building serves as an internally displaced persons camp. "The long-term process of constructing a stable democratic civil society in one of the world's poorest nations is not something achieved overnight," Barrkman told last year's Museums Australia conference, just a few months before the eruption of the latest round of troubles in Dili, triggered by an assassination attempt on President Jose Ramos Horta.

Yet building a museum for the collection is a priority, as a symbol of nation-building and as a presentation of the past of Timor to the generations of its present and its future. Young Timorese encountering for the first time the items in the Dili or Darwin collections are often overwhelmed by the depth and beauty of the carvings and textiles they see: subtly woven cloths, intricately carved house finials, fine ceramics, slender grave-makers from the island's remote eastern tip.

When viewed by students, scholars and artists today, these frail objects become more than the mere remains of a past subjected to strong imprints. They have the potential to serve as active vectors of a rebirth. "There is a strong customary culture in Timor, still in living memory, and objects such as these are critical to the reinvigoration, replenishment and recreation of this domain," Barrkman says. "And in these new times we would hope there will be cultures re-emerging."

Such urgent tasks of retrieval illustrate an aspect of museum management little seen in today's Australia, where the metropolitan palazzos of the southeast concentrate on their own approximations of blockbusters and their attempts at cutting-edge, controversy-courting displays. But Darwin's MAGNT, despite years of governmental neglect and under-funding, has pulled off, in From the Hands of Our Ancestors, that rarest of things: an exhibition of perfect pitch and urgent relevance.

Barrkman, who follows in a long line of distinguished curators and collectors of Asian art at the Darwin museum, has demonstrated what a small, committed team within an institution can do in the realms of cultural diplomacy. It is an offering from the Top End to Timor, one that will be remembered long after the standard pieties of regional engagement have vanished from the mind.

From the Hands of Our Ancestors (Husi Bei Ala Timor Sira Nia Liman) at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory until July 12, 2009.


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