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A Look Back: Art of the Austronesians: The Legacy of Indo-Pacific Voyaging

“In prehistoric times Austronesian-speaking people covered half the globe in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and they did it all in sailing canoes long before Europeans ventured into open oceans,” noted Roy W. Hamilton, former Senior Curator of Asian & Pacific Collections.

Austronesian is the name of a language family: it is derived from austral, meaning “southern,” and nesia, indicating “islands.” Today it includes more than 1,200 closely related languages. Proto-Austronesian peoples are first evidenced in Taiwan about 5,000 years ago. By 3,300 years ago, successive generations of seafaring agriculturalists occupied new homelands throughout the Philippines and Indonesia, and sailed eastward into the Pacific as far as the Solomon Islands and the Marianas. Later migrations carried them to Madagascar, Hawaii, and New Zealand.

The Art of the Austronesians featured nearly 200 objects, organized geographically, enabling visitors to trace cultural connections across diverse regions as the Austronesian world expanded. The exhibition design included logos to identify shared themes and imagery appearing throughout the installation. These themes included representations of spirits and ancestors, male and female figures, hornbills, reptilians, and boats. Some of these images are shown below.

Artist unknown (Yami peoples, Botel Tobago Island, Taiwan); Canoe, mid-20th century; Fowler Museum at UCLA, X91.5703a-d; Anonymous Gift

The Yami (local inhabitants of Taiwan) were farmers as well as avid travelers, moving on the open ocean in outrigger canoes—arguably their most important invention. The human-like form painted on the side of this 15-foot canoe and carved into its decorative finials represents the Yami ancestral culture hero, Magamaog, who taught the Yami boatbuilding and agriculture. Canoes of this size were owned by fishing associations—the most important social and economic groups in Yami communities

Artist unknown (North Nias, Indonesia); Ancestor figures (adu zatua), collected before 1907; Fowler Museum at UCLA, X65.5679; Gift of the Wellcome Trust

Each time a person died in Nias, his or her carved image was added to the row of figures affixed to the wall of the main room of the family house. Old houses sometimes contained hundreds of such figures, serving as a graphic genealogy of ancestors. “Lineage was of utmost importance while laying claims to new lands. The status of a new generation depended on their being able to show who their ancestors were,” Roy W. Hamilton explained.

Ancestors play an important role in the secular and sacred lives of Austronesian-speaking peoples. Links to previous generations, they guide activities in the present and determine prospects for the future. Descendants, for their part, have many obligations toward ancestors, and failure to meet them may bring a wide variety of misfortunes. Almost every communal undertaking involves veneration of ancestors with works of visual art as well as songs, chants, oral histories, and acknowledgment of genealogies.

Artist unknown (Bajau peoples, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines); Boat-shaped funerary marker, 19th to early 20th century; Fowler Museum at UCLA, X80.1141a,b; Gift of Eli Ballan

Muslim cemeteries in the Sulu region of the southern Philippines feature box-like tombs surmounted by wooden grave markers carved in various forms.

Artist unknown (Javanese peoples, Wonosobo, Central Java, Indonesia); Horse (kuda kepang) for spirit-possession dances, late 20th century; Fowler Museum at UCLA, X99.5.36; Gift of Susan P. Fuller

Although it may look like a toy, the kuda kepang (“flat horse”) serves as a vehicle for riders who enter a state of trance in a Javanese dance form. Performers move to hypnotic rhythms until they become possessed by the spirit of the horse. They may engage in horse-like behaviors, eating whole ears of corn or dunking their heads into troughs. Participants are not religious specialists like shamans, but ordinary people who seek altered states of consciousness. This esoteric performance continues to be a popular form of entertainment and spiritual practice in Java.

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