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Yami people Main house post [tomok] 19th century Place made: Botel Tobago Island, Taiwan
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, pigments
Dimensions: 216.6 h x 108.8 w x 8.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.1067
Provenance:
  • The supplied chain of ownership for this object is being reviewed and further research is underway. The provenance information listed has been substantiated by documentation. Details may be refined and updated as research progresses. (added 2016)
  • with Helene Leloup (then Helene Kamer), Paris, 1973 or before
  • who sold it to Philippe Guimiot, Brussels, after 1973
  • who sold it to a private collector, Belgium, after 1973
  • who sold it through art dealer Robert van der Stukken of Polos Interiors, Amsterdam
  • to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2009

This large and strikingly painted panel is an important new addition to the Gallery’s collection of Asian sculpture. It was created by Taiwan’s Yami people, an indigenous group who live on Botel Tobago (also known as Lanyu or Orchid Island), a small mountainous isolated island off the south-east coast of Taiwan. Along with distinctively decorated canoes, the tomok—the main house post of a traditional dwelling—is the most culturally valuable art form of the Yami people. Worldwide, only a small number of significant Yami objects are held by public museums.

Yami culture shares ethnographic and linguistic similarities with communities of the northern islands of the Philippines. Fishing is still central to traditional life and the flying fish that annually migrate past the island are considered sacred. The Yami ritual calendar centres on the flying fish season when ceremonies are performed to summon, store and prepare the fish.

A typical Yami dwelling consists of a main house built below ground to withstand frequent typhoons, a separate work house, and a platform for eating and socialising. Painted with very similar imagery to the ceremonial canoes, tomok support the roof apex at the centre of the main house. Symbolising the connection between sea and mountain, the tomok is the first element to be erected after a house site is excavated, and is carefully positioned in accordance with local lore. Highly valued, tomok are passed down from one generation to the next and are moved if a family relocates or reconstructs a house.

One face of this post is decorated with red, black and white motifs intended to protect the household from malevolent spirits of the dead (anito). The circular motif, which typically appears on Yami canoe prows, is called mata no tatara (eye of the canoe). The figure with spiral arms and headdress represents Magamoag, the ancestor who imparted boat-building and agricultural skills to the Yami, while the goat’s horn motif symbolises longevity.

This tomok will go on display alongside other rare and fascinating works of art in the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art.


Lucie Folan
Curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010


in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010

This striking painted panel was created by Taiwan’s Yami people, an indigenous Austronesian language group who live on Botel Tobago (also known as Lanyu or Orchid Island), a small mountainous island off the south-east coast of Taiwan. Fishing is still central to traditional life and the flying fish that annually migrate past the island are considered sacred. The Yami ritual calendar centres on the flying fish season when ceremonies are performed to summon, store and prepare the fish.

Along with distinctively decorated canoes, the tomok—the main house post of a traditional dwelling—is the most culturally valuable art form of the Yami people. A typical Yami dwelling consists of a main house, built below ground to withstand frequent typhoons, a separate work house, and a platform for eating and socialising. Painted with very similar imagery to the ceremonial canoes, tomok support the roof apex at the centre of the main house. Symbolising the connection between sea and mountain, the tomok is the first element to be erected after a house site is excavated, and is carefully positioned in accordance with local lore. Tomok are passed down from one generation to the next and are moved if a family relocates or reconstructs a house.

One face of this post is decorated with red, black and white motifs intended to protect the household from malevolent spirits of the dead (anito). The circular motif, which typically appears on Yami canoe prows, is called mata no tatara (eye of the canoe). The figure with spiral arms and headdress represents Magamoag, the ancestor who imparted boat-building and agricultural skills to the Yami, while the goat’s horn motif symbolises longevity.


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