Pair of ancestor figures [ai bahat]
early 20th century
Maquili district, Atauro Island, East Timor
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, cloth
Carved to honour clan ancestors, this pair of wooden figures (saet) was created on the small island of Atauro, where an old and distinguished wood carving tradition still continues today. The imposing couple demonstrate the classic features of Atauro figurative sculpture: the upright poised standing posture, fine straight elongated limbs, prominent linear nose, incised eye sockets with overhanging eyebrows, distinctive curved ears and stylised, square feet.
The female ancestor is adorned with drop earrings and a necklace (morten) indicating affluence, items often included in the bride wealth exchanges that occur between families during marriage negotiations. Both the figures are swathed in cloth: a short skirt for the woman and a loincloth for the man. The use of cloth to cover the genitalia of Atauro figurative sculpture was apparently introduced by Portuguese Catholic missionaries in the mid-twentieth century. Both ancestors hold infants: the two infants suckling at the mother’s breast, and the phallic positioning of the child held by the father, are overt symbols of fecundity.
During harvest rituals, offerings of young corn, fish, peanuts and betel nut are made to the saet to ensure plentiful crops to sustain the descendants of the ancestors. Saet are often stored inside the clan’s ceremonial house, with male and female pairs tied together and suspended from the rafters. The dark patina of these ancestor sculptures is the result of smoke emanating from fires burnt for the preparation of food offerings inside the windowless ceremonial house.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014