Preserving Tradition: Current Toys for Souls of the Future

Juniator Tulius

This book comprises traditional ways of life and the remarkable art of the Mentawai people living in the islands of Mentawai located off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The initial versions of Toys for the Souls have been published in Dutch titled Speelgoed voor de zielen in 1979 and German titled Spielzeug für de Seelen in 1980. Both books are catalogues for Mentawai art exhibitions that were organized in Delft, the Netherlands at the Nusantara Museum and in Zürich, Switzerland at the Rietberg Museum some decades ago. Mainan Bagi Roh published in 1991 is an Indonesian version of the Toys for the Souls. A brief summary of Toys for the Souls itself is also presented to be a chapter of another recent publication of tribal art book titled Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art edited by Reimar Schefold and Steven Alpert (Tuttle Publishing, 2016, 29–41). Comparing to those versions, the book of Toys for the Souls is more comprehensive in contents with two additional chapters.

The book Toys for the Souls consists of 12 chapters, smoothly explaining a remarkable ethnography of Mentawai people with marvelous pictures of Mentawai art. Every element of life and Mentawai cultural aspects are depicted properly and proportionally by the author in his book. In Chapter 2, the author presents historical and archaeological notes about ornamental patterns found in Mentawai art that depict the correlation between the Mentawai culture and Dongson tradition in Southeast Asian regions (pp. 21–23). Architectural buildings, the way of making a living, life circles, local group and alliances, ritual and spiritual concepts studied by the author characterize the presence of Austronesian traditions in Mentawai culture. According to anthropological and linguistic research done by the author, Mentawai culture also represents a less complex Neolithic tradition. Different cultural objects mentioned as illustrative examples in the book while the author discusses particular aspects of Mentawaian culture characterize the complexity of Mentawaian culture with multifaceted influences from different times and traditions in Southeast Asia.

The author furthermore discusses functions and purposes of some objects in rituals, ceremonials and daily life of the Mentawaian communities while describing ethnographic elements of Mentawaian culture (pp. 150–162). Specifically, the author describes different techniques of plaiting, appliqué, the application of color, incising, the excision of parts of a surface, the piercing of surfaces, and sculptural carving in which way the Mentawaians make their ornamental and figural art. The author states, ‘The Mentawaians do not know metalworking, waving, or rice cultivation so it can be assumed that their culture predates the early Metal Age’ (p. 21). Machetes, small knives, and axes that were obtained from Sumatran traders are the tools used by Mentawaians to produce their tribal art. By means of those tools, different cultural objects are made out of natural products taken from the forest and sea like woods, rattans and shells. As it is needed, handcrafted objects are colored with a substance extracted from natural products like fruits, barks, leaves, and, tubers. Sizes, shapes, functions, and purposes of the objects are adapted to the ritual and social needs of Mentawaian communities. These features can be seen on illustrative pictures in the catalog of the book. In Mentawai there is no artist in producing particular artistic objects. Almost everyone can sculpture and handcraft particular objects and by practising they can become the skilled handcrafters (siagai kabei).

According to the author’s study, human beings, plants, animals and objects have souls to Mentawai spiritual view. To persuade these souls staying in harmony with each other, ritual objects with artistic designs inspired by nature, dreams, imaginations and experiences have been crafted by Mentawaians for generations. In this way of life, art, ritual and aesthetics are intertwined. However, this way of life cannot be maintained and sustained as it was in the time of ancestors. Changes have been coming to influence the Mentawai way of life. The last two chapters in this book are additionally given to describe modern developments influencing Mentawai art and current changes occurring in the last two decades on the Mentawai Islands that affect Mentawai communities. Impacts of changes in Mentawai have affected the Mentawaians in the way of producing artistic objects from social and ritual purposes to additional aim, which is commercial.

Mentawaians commonly produce limited pieces of tools and artistic objects, meaning that it was rare to massively produce objects for cultural and social purposes. Recently on demand of the tribal art markets, Mentawaian handcrafters produce a number of primate statues or duplicate cultural objects such as fetish panels and tools as some examples shown in Mentawai Art catalog by Feldman, et. al (1999), which are also discussed by the author (pp. 183-187). Sometimes, tribal art collectors at the local level modify particular items so that they look more fancy, old, dramatic, artistic, and authentic than their original appearances in order to attract tribal art buyers with high prices. They were sometimes detached from their ancestral and original ideas of how and why they had been crafted originally by Mentawaian handcrafters. By doing so, particular Mentawai tribal art listed in catalogs and displayed in international markets is losing their originality and cultural values and become the theme of debate among tribal art scholars and collectors.

My conclusion is that this book, Toys for the Souls, is lacking necessary information of dimension and specified materials used in Mentawaian tribal art as well as their history of when they were made. Nevertheless, the book becomes an imprinted memory of the past of Mentawaian ancestors, which is needed to be the guiding foundation for dealing with Mentawai art in the future. This book is not only one of the indispensable sources of knowledge of Mentawai culture for young generation Mentawaian people, but also for Mentawai art lovers and scholars who are interested in tribal art especially Mentawaians’ way of life and their tribal art. Historical explanation and cultural description make this book interesting. It is one of the indispensable publications in the literature of tribal art. Toys for the Souls reveals the richness and creative power of an artistic imagination, deeply rooted in Southeast Asian prehistory.

Feldman, Jerome, et al. (1999) Mentawai Art. New York: Archipelago Press.
Schefold, Reimar and Alpert, Steven C.  (2016) Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art. Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.
Schefold, Reimar (1979) Speelgoed voor de Zielen: Kunst en Cultuur van de Mentawai-Eilanden. Delft: Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara.
Schefold, Reimar (1980) Spielzeug für de Seelen: Kunst und Kultur der Mentawai-Inseln (Indonesien). Zürich: Rietberg Museum.
Schefold, Reimar (1991) Mainan Bagi Roh: Kebudayaan Mentawai. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka.