Ethical Carvings: Reframing Local , Interethnic, and Interreligious Relations

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It was in this context of increasing religious self-consciousness and burgeoning religious, economic, and political tensions in Indonesia that I became aware of how some Toraja were promoting ethical responses to conflict and turmoil, both locally and nationally, through their carvings. Upon arrival on a research visit in 1998, I stopped by the rural home and workshop of one of my Toraja “siblings” to catch up on family news. This brother, Ambena Landang,was now in his fifties and with each passing decade he seemed to become increasingly reflective and political, pouring his energies into sculpting a better world. Always a charismatic man with a deep concern for ethnic equality, as well as for ethical behavior, by 1998 Ambena Landang was finally becoming recognized as an intelligent local leader.  

The pounding of distant carvers’ mallets echoed in the bamboo glen as I came down the narrow path leading to Ambena Landang’s home and studio on a damp June morning in 1998. I found him seated at a sturdy old wooden table in the center of his breezy workshop, his head bent over papers. From the entryway, I surveyed his studio, which was greatly changed since my last visit. Scattered around the workshop were dozens of figural sculptures: hunchbacked elders with enormous canes, elegant traditionally clad women in funeral finery, and even miniatures of squatting gray-haired grannies clutching betel nut bags crowded the benches and corners of the space. The walls were covered with striking three-dimensional carved paintings, many unlike any I had ever seen before: some shimmered with new colors atypical of the Toraja palette; innovative metallic gold- and silver-saturated scenes magnetically drew my eyes. Still others glistened with a layer of shellac, and many were framed. Astonished by this outpouring of creative productivity, I paused to absorb it before calling out the Toraja greeting, “Manasumorekka? [Have you cooked rice yet?]”  

Ambena Landang’s bespectacled head bobbed up. He flashed a grin along with the standard reply, “Manasumo! [The rice is cooked already!],” and gestured for me to come in and chat. We plunged into the important family news—updates on deaths and funerals in the community during my absence. Finally, Ambena Landang turned to discuss his new carvings. Several years earlier, Ambena Landang had observed trouble brewing among the youth in his rural district. Many had graduated from high school or college, but had returned home to face unemployment. They were alternately depressed, dejected, and resentful that their years of schooling had not brought them jobs. As Ambena Landang observed, with empty pockets and time on their hands, these youths were veering toward gambling and petty crime. Recognizing their need for income and productive activity, Ambena Landang established a carving workshop for these unemployed youths. Gathering a few idle teens from his hamlet, he mentored them on carving, reasoning that if they were kept busy carving, they would soon forget about gambling. With a furtive smile in the direction of his wife, he reminded me, “I used to gamble, to the point where gambling became my profession. Hopefully, this workshop will give them a profession that will not torment the spirits of their wives and children.” Initially, working under Ambena Landang’s tutelage, the teens at the workshop produced the standard touristic wall plaques and trays. Several of the young carvers routinely chipped away at their creations while perched on the studio’s airy front porch. The workshop’s location alongside a trail to a much-visited gravesite meant that tourists often paused for snapshots of these photogenic young carvers. Ultimately, the visitors would be drawn into the workshop and purchases would soon follow. Between Ambena Landang’s careful quality control and the studio’s ideal location, the workshop was soon financially viable. Gradually, Ambena Landang began experimenting with new carving styles and genres, infusing seemingly innocent landscapes with embedded political and ethical messages. Drawing on the traditional vocabulary of Toraja symbols, he sketched models for his new visions, then relinquished them to the workshop carvers who made these visions come to life in multidimensional carved “paintings.” As Ambena Landang declared, [Through our carvings] we want to communicate to our fellow citizens and to all the peoples of the world that there is a Toraja philosophy of life that was recorded in carvings in the eras before writing existed, and that this Toraja life philosophy still has relevance for us all. All that you see here, it’s all our philosophy.   Whisking off the dust with his palm, he placed it in front of me for closer inspection. “Take a look at this one, Katlin,” he instructed. Carefully, I studied the images on the painting. Dominating the center was the façade of a traditional ancestral home, a tongkonan, overlain with a sculpted image of a bate manurun structure. Bate manurun are sacred, ladder-like objects constructed of bamboo and cloth banners. They are erected during great maro rituals, rituals that were traditionally held to restore order following a disturbance (Nooy-Palm 1979:221). Bate manurun translates as “the flag that descended from heaven.” For adherents to ancestral religion, this massive structure was lowered by the gods from the heavens to protect humans from various dangers. Some interpret this ritual architectural structure as a “helping hand extended by heaven to mankind on earth” (ibid., 222). Above the bate manurun, at the apex of the house, a large cockerel (pa’ manuk londong) stood poised atop a sunburst motif (pa’ barre allo). Menacing the cock was a fork-tongued serpent (on the painting’s upper-left side). To the cock’s right, behind its tail feathers, Ambena Landang had sculpted a pair of animals— the kabonga (water buffalo head) and the katik (a mythical long-�necked crested bird).The background of this upper portion of the painting was filled in with the betel nut leaf motif (pa’ daun bolu), a motif Kesu’ area carvers I interviewed said was associated with offerings to the gods and spirituality. At the painting’s base, under the bate manurun structure, a roughly hewn nude man stood with arms extended, grasping two sinuous serpents. Each enormous serpent appeared poised to swallow a small frog. Although unpainted, the entire carved scene was enthroned on a colorful frame embellished with traditional Toraja iconography.   After I had surveyed the painting for a moment, Ambena Landang began his explanation. Tapping his finger on an area around the apex of the bate manurun structure and the tongkonan (which elites in this hamlet associated with the power of the gods and ancestors), he explained, “See here? Power resides here at the top. But next to it, there is Setan (Satan)—the powers of Setan.” He gently tapped the forked-tongued serpent to underscore his point. Turning to the painting’s upper center and indicating the rooster, he continued, “The rooster is our symbol of law and justice. See here, next to it, Setan [in serpent form] is trying to lure it into temptation. But the rooster is saying ‘there is power behind me.’”  

Ambena Landang paused to point to the mythical katik bird, the buffalo head, and the betel nut leaf motif, reminding me of their associations with the power of the gods and ancestors. As I reflected on the various sorts of powers to which these motifs alluded, Ambena Landang continued unpacking the carved painting’s meaning.   “Here, in the bottom part, humankind is always in motion and temptation is always hovering, trying to goad humans’ desires.” I squinted at the painting, initially perplexed, until I realized that the tongkonan dominating the painting’s center, as well as the bare man clutching the serpents, alluded to human activities and temptations. Pointing to the small frogs near the serpents’ mouths, Bapakna’ Landang moved on,   See the frogs? Man is giving the frogs to the snakes. He is telling the snakes, “Just eat these frogs—don’t make me your target.” Nah, beginning at that moment, Toraja people started wanting to be as good as they possibly could. Gesturing to a pair of roosters near the center of the painting that I had previously overlooked, Ambena Landang elaborated: You remember, Katlin, how usually a pair of roosters is carved at the top of tongkonan? Those roosters are continually crowing to each other, delivering messages for us all to remember. These roosters here are crowing reminders of this story, crowing to everyone that we are one community and that we must treasure each other, and celebrate our community. So the picture is giving us a lesson about how to live.   

He paused for a moment, puffing on his cigarette while I reflected on the carved painting’s overall message. Although he hadn’t directly addressed the bate manurun dominating the center of the painting, I now understood the reason for its presence. Indonesia had fallen into a period of violence and disruption, and the bate manurun was a structure erected as part of traditional rituals designed to restore order to the community. In essence, Ambena Landang was invoking this traditional “helping hand” from the heavens to restore order to the broader community. He was adeptly invoking a pantheon of traditional images to sculpt a message about living harmoniously in today’s complicated world.   Turning more directly to the context of South Sulawesi, Ambena Landang resumed: I started this sort of carving to help poor people here make a living. But now I’m seeing that we need to do this to support ourselves in other ways. If our carvings are liked by others, people [from other groups] will automatically respect us. We don’t want what happened back in the 1950s to repeat itself—when Torajas made shoes for people in Makassar and those people [Muslim Bugis and Makassarese] used those shoes to stomp on us. Right?   

Ambena Landang’s eyes sparkled as he proceeded to tell me about the next part of his vision, which he hoped would carve a new path for Toraja relations with their lowland rivals: My plans are to start carving tables to give to people in Makassar. Soon, they’ll be sitting before our tables. If they enjoy eating and drinking from our carved tables, when we Toraja appear, they’ll be saying “silahkan.” [please come sit and join us]. Nah, that’s what I’m doing next!   

As I listened, I realized that for Ambena Landang, these furniture-carving plans embodied an attempt to manufacture more harmonious relations between Muslim Makassarese and Christian Toraja, relations that would bring them together over shared food and drink.



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