Tourism and the Arts in Southern Sulawesi


From the coastal fringes of Southern Sulawesi, the fertile flatlands of the Buginese, to the mountainous hinterlands of Tana Toraja Regency, Western European, American, Australian, and Japanese tourists have shaped and continue to shape the landscape of Toraja arts.

The Toraja are the beneficiaries of a richly diverse artistic heritage - figurative sculpture, carving, textiles, metallurgy, and architecture, both permanent and temporary. By the time tourism began in the early 1970s, however, many traditional arts associated with ceremonial life were waning. Toraja mortuary sculpture, formerly created by a limited number of carving specialists, had been discouraged by the Dutch since the early 1900s as a pagan manifestation of Toraja religion. There were cultural constraints upon the growth of Toraja figurative sculpture as well: the arts of effigy-making were associated with death and its ceremonies. As such, they were regarded as polluting.

Many everyday arts, such as the carving of wooden plates and kitchen utensils, as well as the ornately incised bamboo betel nut containers, declined as the supply of store-bought, manufactured goods became more plentiful. As a cash economy penetrated the hinterlands, tin boxes and glass bottles supplanted bamboo betel nut containers; hand-carved dishes and drinking vessels were replaced by enamel plates and cups made in Singapore.

Certain arts which continue to be useful in contemporary life still flourish. Architecture, including the construction of ritual structures, pig-barns, iron-forges, granaries, and houses has remained both viable and vital. This is also the case for the weaving of reed mats, bamboo sun hats and tumpline baskets which are indispensable in daily life and agricultural activities.

If, by the early 1970s, certain Toraja artistic traditions were already waning, tourism contributed to this decline through a process of cultural erosion: the progressive depletion of the stock of old, highly valued heirlooms. At the same time, tourism stimulated the reproduction of miniatures and models of other Toraja artifacts. In certain niches of the Toraja artistic terrain, tourism stimulated the revitalization of declining traditions as well as innovations in the arts of carving. Rather than a landscape of fixed forms, contemporary Toraja arts present a varied topography in transition.

Since the 1970s an increasingly large number of Toraja shops have been established in Rantepao, the site of most touristic activity. These shops, a cross between boutiques and warehouses, sell a diverse collection of artifacts and artistic products: ancestral iron swords, headdresses with buffalo horns and bird-of-paradise feathers, and sacred ikat and batik cloths. These objects are heirlooms, once regarded as the potent property of the ancestors and associated with the spirits. Also sold are antiques as well as contemporary objects of everyday use: gold jewelry, bamboo baskets, wooden plates and drinking vessels. The owners of these shops, educated and in many cases Christian Toraja, conceive of Toraja culture as a concrete set of ritual practices and limited universe of "authentic" Toraja artifacts.

Touristic appetites for aesthetically interesting traditional artifacts have encouraged the Christian proprietors of one shop (located in Ke'te Kesu village, a settlement frequently visited by tourists in Land-Rover caravans to canvas Mamasa, the relatively inaccessible Western region of Toraja. In search of a new stock of antique items, urban Toraja close to the touristic centers are consuming, through purchases, the arts of adjacent regions.

Within the past decade the theft of mortuary effigies and other artifacts from traditional gravesites constitutes another example of the erosion of Toraja arts. In 1978 a Toraja noble was convicted of the theft of a portion of a carved coffin from a traditional grave (for sale to a foreign collector). While relatively rare, occurrences such as this offend both Christian Toraja as well as those who continue to adhere to the indigenous religion. "One does not sell one's ancestors!" people say. The exaltation of Toraja figurative sculpture and decorative arts by Western art historians and museum curators parallels a decline of fundamental Toraja values.

If tourism has contributed to an erosion of certain regions of Toraja arts, it has also stimulated a revitalization of Toraja ikat textile traditions. In recent decades the ikat-weaving traditions of the Seko-Rongkong area had been declining. In the past five years as the stock of high quality ikat cloths diminished, Toraja entrepreneurs from Rantepao have encouraged the production of new cloths which are woven and dyed in the traditional designs of the Seko-Rongkong region. While not as meticulously woven or dyed as the older cloths, these contemporary textiles are attractive. Although ikat weaving in the Seko-Rongkong region involves only a small number of weavers, it does constitute a modest revitalization of a traditional craft, stimulated by the tourist market.

Tourism has also stimulated the small-scale crafts production of wooden trays and wall-plaques, carved and colored in the traditional designs of Toraja house carvings. These finely Grafted objects are sold in the shops of Ujung Pandang (itself an emporium for the arts and artifacts of the Outer Islands) as well as in Rantepao. They represent recent artistic innovations which draw upon traditional roots.

While most Toraja who have achieved a measure of economic prosperity aspire to building a concrete house or one with a corrugated tin roof, tourists are captivated by traditional Toraja domestic architecture and rice granaries. These striking architectural forms are appreciated as examples of skillful traditional design and craftsmanship. Unfortunately, full-scale Toraja house and rice granaries do not lend themselves to easy packaging and shipment to New York or Geneva. Touristic appetites for tangible tokens and portable images of Toraja architecture have stimulated a small-scale crafts industry producing miniature and not-so-miniature models of Toraja houses. In their spare-time, young boys living in remote villages throughout Tana Toraja regency engage in miniature model-making. These small-scale replicas of Toraja houses and granaries are sold to stores in Rantepao. Older, more experienced craftsmen are commissioned to produce more elaborate models.

While the initial impulse of replication is to create an object on a small, accessible scale, an inflation of size often follows. In 1978, the Ambassador of New Zealand, on a state visit to Tana Toraja, was presented with a meticulously constructed, 5' long replica of a Toraja house by the Regency Head (bupati) of Tana Toraja. While the exchange of gifts at rituals - buffalo, pigs, palm wine, and betel nut - has played, and continues to play a central role in Toraja social life, replicas of Toraja houses, given to visiting "big-men," are a new medium of exchange.

The drawing card of the Toraja tourist industry is Toraja ritual; temporary ritual architecture provides an extraordinary theater set for Toraja ceremonies. Temporary ritual architecture is built of lightweight, readily obtainable materials such as bamboo and rattan which is easily assembled. Architecture associated with Toraja ritual is technically and artistically ingenuous, demonstrating a capacity to imagine and transform an environment with modest means and local materials.

It is possible that Toraja ritual architecture will survive, but as form alone: the outward, objectified husks of an already waning, and perhaps no longer viable system of beliefs. If the performance of ritual becomes a means of objectifying Toraja cultural identity in tangible, even negotiable form, then temporary ritual architecture may become a modern commodity in an archaic guise. What was once the armature for ritual may become the scaffold for cultural auctions. If this proves to be the case, it will be a transformation unknown, even imperceptible to most Western observers.

Curiously, it is Buginese entrepreneurs, dwelling on the coast, who have conceived of innovations drawing upon traditional Toraja carving arts as well as Buginese silk-weaving traditions. In November of 1980, the first shirts of hand-spun, hand-woven Buginese silk were printed with the images of patterns traditionally incised on the facades of Toraja houses. These formerly sacred patterns were printed using Western techniques and materials: silk-screen printing and imported Ciba-Geigy inks. Produced by a wealthy Buginese textile merchant in search of new markets for Buginese silks, these shirts will be sold to tourists en route to witness "animist" rituals in Tana Toraja.

At Enrekang, the gateway to Tana Toraja Regency, these shirts will be sold to busloads of foreign visitors. While in former times Buginese kingdoms reaped material benefits from selling Toraja coffee and slaves to others, they are now apparently capitalizing, with considerable ingenuity and imagination, upon Toraja artistic traditions. At the gateway to the Toraja hinterland in Enrekang, as tourists sip "authentic Toraja coffee," the configuration of Toraja artistic terrain is changing, yet reflects a centuries-old drama between the coastal Buginese and the highland Toraja.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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