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Nias people Monument honouring a chief [gowe salawa] 19th century or earlier Place made: north Nias, Nias, Indonesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, stone
Dimensions: 160.0 h x 30.0 w x 41.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.565

Situated off Sumatra’s west coast, the island of Nias is home to an ancient yet enduring tradition of monumental statuary in stone and wood. Ancestral and aristocratic effigies, pillars and seats of honour are still found today in Nias villages. The layout of traditional villages is dramatic, with immense wooden houses erected around central terraces and stone-paved plazas, the venue for important feasts and gatherings. A striking Anthropomorphic stone monument (gowe salawa) from Nias is a major acquisition of Indonesian animist sculpture.

The impressive figure of a nobleman would have been commissioned as a portrait to preside over a feast of rank celebrating the patron’s elevation in social and political standing. While abstract depictions of great chiefs in the forms of shafts and steles are found across the entire island, this example is carved in a more realistic style found especially in the northern villages of Nias.

The squatting or seated human figure is an ancient feature of animist sculpture throughout Southeast Asia and this gowe salawa is one of the most striking known examples of this form. A slightly more eroded partner to this monument, most likely by the same artist, is on permanent display in the Louvre in Paris.

On Nias, distinct hierarchical divisions exist between lower and upper classes. In former times, slaves and commoners were governed by noble chiefs who traced their lineage back to mythical founding ancestors. Even today, status is reinforced by the display of attributes associated with wealth and power. The Gallery’s gowe salawa exhibits many markers of high status, including a gold studded headdress, necklace, bangles and long ear ornament—typical ceremonial regalia of a Nias nobleman. The patron’s qualities of bravery and strength are confirmed by the emphasis of his masculine physical traits, namely his prominent genitalia, and by his sword and scabbard.

This figure joins another more abstract Nias stone monument in the collection, and both will be on display in the exhibition Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art.


Niki van den Heuvel
Exhibition Assistant, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010


in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010

Situated off Sumatra’s west coast, the island of Nias is home to an ancient tradition of monumental statuary in stone and wood. Ancestral and aristocratic effigies, pillars and seats of honour are still found in Nias villages. The layout of traditional villages is dramatic, with immense wooden houses erected around central terraces and stone-paved plazas, the venue for important feasts and gatherings.

On Nias, distinct hierarchical divisions exist between lower and upper classes. In former times, slaves and commoners were governed by noble chiefs who traced their lineages back to mythical founding ancestors. Even today, status is reinforced by the display of attributes associated with wealth and power. This impressive effigy of a nobleman (gowe salawa) would have been commissioned to preside over a feast of rank celebrating the patron’s elevation in social and political standing. While abstract depictions of great chiefs in the form of shafts and steles are found across the entire island, this example is carved in a more realistic style associated with northern Nias.

The figure exhibits many markers of high status, including representations of a gold studded headdress, necklace, bangles and long ear pendant, along with facial ornaments of a gold moustache and pointed beard—typical ceremonial regalia of a Nias nobleman. The patron’s qualities of bravery and strength are confirmed by the emphasis on his masculine physical traits, namely his prominent genitalia, and by his sword and scabbard.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

In former times, monumental sculptures carved from stone and wood in the form of ancestral and aristocratic effigies, obelisks, pillars, steles and seats of honour were prolific throughout the island of Nias. These impressive monuments are still a feature of traditional villages which consist of immense wooden houses, paved terraces and stone plazas.

This spectacular gowesalawa, commissioned for an owasafeast, is carved in the realistic style identified with the villages of northern Nias. Shown in the squatting position – an ancient and enduring pose appearing repeatedly in the ancestral art of Southeast Asia – the gowe salawa is shown with sword at the waist and wearing the characteristic gold moustache and pointed beard favoured by the nobility.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011
From: Asian gallery extended display label