Top Gifts From Indonesia
From the heartlands of inner Indonesia with its surplus of wealth, spectacular palaces, ancient traditions, music, drama and dance to the wilds of the almost forgotten and isolated islands, Indonesia offers local artwork that captures it all.
Styles that take the best from across the shipping routes of Asia Africa combined with an abundance of locally found produce to create meaningful art. Within a simple wood carving, piece of cloth or pot you will find a tribute to tribes, kings, gods, spirits, mystical beasts, lights and darkness, the sun and moon, air and water.
As industrial Indonesia develops, agricultural rural Indonesia slowly carries on doing what it has done for a millennia and this is truly reflected and felt in the local arts. So when you pick up a hand crafted piece of wood or cloth you really are giving a historical gift.
1. Masks and Puppets
Before there was the written word, stories and cultural tales were tied up and presented in the art of the spoken word. Yet historic Indonesian culture went one step beyond the spoken word and created performance art. To aid them in teaching the next generation, masks and puppets were incorporated to tell of insolent children, disobedient wives and husbands whose eyes wondered a bit too much. The amazingly beautiful thing is that this art form still exists and seems to be thriving in an era where all that is considered old quickly gets swept away. Nevertheless, Indonesia still has a rich culture of the spoken word and its performance.
The masks and puppets that are made and sold are part of this tradition. The various faces and expressions are representatives of the cast and each has a particular role to play. The center for this art has to be in Central Java where puppet shows are frequent and well attended, also Bali where masks play an important role in teaching children of demons and heroes that are in an eternal struggle for our souls.
Yet these masks play a some what more astonishing role as for example in Papua relatives will wear highly decorated masks of the recently deceased and act out their mannerisms and daily roles in an effort to help the soul of their loved one to join the feast and dances in their honor and then return to the land of the dead.
You will find masks of a thousand characters each with a wonderful story to tell. So do not be afraid to ask what story lies behind each mask, you will gain an insight into a culture rather than a trinket.
“Prince Panji wore a full billowing sarong of silk with flowers of gold; his trousers were of green chindi ornamented with golden lace round the bottom and studded with golden ornaments in the shape of the firefly; his ear ornaments were of golden flowers studded with diamonds. On the third finger of each hand he wore two diamond rings. His waistband was a painted cloth of the pattern gringsing sang’u-pati; his kris of the kaprabon; his jamang, or head ornament, of gold set with diamonds and scented with all kinds of sweet-scented oils. He appeared more beautiful than a deity descended from heaven, all looking upon him with delight and astonishment.”
Taken from ‘The History of Java’ (1817) Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles.
As we have already seen the mixture of gold gems and cloth had one intention to create and support the belief that this member of the royal family was indeed a Deity descended from Heaven. Even a well-traveled scholarly foreigner stated the result was more beautiful than the desired effect.
Indonesians became masters at using textiles to great effect, not due to needs demanded by weather conditions like Europeans but by cultural and spiritual expectations. When looking at Indonesian textiles this must never be forgotten, it is not being beautiful for the sake of being beautiful but instead a step on a spiritual path.
No textile better exemplifies this than the national cloth, Batik. This material is mostly hand produced and decorated with colors and designs that reflect the nation, the regions and pay homage to nature in all its elements. When buying Batik take your time and find a blend of colors and design that you like. If in doubt you can see government officials operating what could be perceived as fashion shows on Fridays, national Batik day. It is a good opportunity to see the latest trends and fashions in this extremely popular art.
Trees touch the skies with branches of the future and roots stand firm in the rich soil. Strength and Unity, this is a lesson we should learn from our ancestors. Wood and trees have played a huge role in the development of this culture and the carving of wood reflects this and is respected and honored.
The range of objects that have been crafted from wood all across Indonesia defies belief, from the small to the large. As you visit workshops and stalls in busy markets you find ornate furniture that echoes a history of expert workmanship and craftsmanship. The wood is shaped and joined exquisitely, craved into the imagination of the artist and finished to a smooth and gentle touch. Smaller items reflect cultural motifs depicting Gods and deities in their supposed glory. Regional musical instruments from generations passed are still produced and played in front of fires at street sides throughout the night.
Whatever you find on your journeys remember that there is a meaning behind every object so do not be afraid to ask.
Over four thousand years ago, the arts and skills of the master craftsmen reached Indonesia from the northern kingdoms of China and India. With this knowledge of local customs and beliefs, most of the early pieces depicted agricultural fertility gods such as Loro Blonyo and Dewi Sri, the Hindu goddess rice mother and her consort Sadono, wedding ceremonies, animals to guard and protect the contents.
Most of this earthenware is bold and simple with the deep red color that reflects the rich clay found in this part of the world. A personal favorite is a Semar moneybox. Semar is a short chubby clown that has a big heart filled with sympathy and wisdom. See if you can spot him in the local markets.
A short curved sword that resembles a serpent or flickering flame. This dagger must be chosen through complex calculations in order for it to fit perfectly into your hand and its beauty has to match your position in life. As a guest we can not take this lightly as every Keris has its own soul and if it does not like its owner then it shall turn its powers against the one who holds it. With such folklore surrounding the Keris it is seen as a wildly powerful icon, even to the point where the owner will not unsheathe the blade in fear that the weapon will demand blood.
The first thing to understand is what metal is the object made from as each has a purpose. Gold symbolizes moral and spiritual status. As the kingdoms of old were not just rulers they were also the spiritual direction of their people so they were adorned with Gold. Discreet is not a word that we can use in conjunction with most classical gold jewelry in Indonesia. It is better described as flamboyant and powerful as that is what they wished to portray.
Objects of iron are strong and rugged in shape symbolizing protection. Today we can still find new houses being built around small pieces of iron buried beneath that are believed to offer protection to home and family from both physical and spiritual dangers. This is the reason why we find this unlikely metal in jewelry, as it then will safeguard the wearer. Other metals worn are from silver, tin, and aluminium to copper.
The person who crafts all these is your local smithy, however this skilled artisan is seen as someone who fashions, protects and decorates you. Therefore in Indonesia they have the title ‘Pandai’ which also means smart, clever, and intelligent.
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