Becoming Batak

Becoming Batak

SINGAPORE - A new exhibition of Batak sculptures and objects in wood, stone and bronze at the Asian Civilisations Museum, tells a fascinating story of traditions, beliefs as well as migration.

By the end of the show, 20 pieces which are part of Beginning Of The Becoming - Batak Sculpture From Northern Sumatra will also become part of the museum's permanent collection.

The Singapore-based private Mandala Foundation, which has loaned several pieces for the exhibition, is donating the works.

There are more than 80 pieces, on display at the Shaw Foyer of the museum till June 1.

They tell the story of the Batak people, who started migrating to South-east Asia from somewhere in southern China or Taiwan almost 6,000 years ago. The areas surrounding Lake Toba and the island of Samosir became Batak heartland. They were feared by their coastal neighbours and were believed to be headhunters and sorcerers.

This, curator David Henkel tells Life!, was a reputation they had "cunningly cultivated to keep strangers away".

He says the title is a literal translation of the name of the Batak's supreme God, Mula Jadi Na Bolon, whom the Bataks believe is the creator of the universe.

The Batak culture continues to flourish in northern Sumatra, which is a short distance from Singapore.

What stands out in the exhibition, which took more than 11/2 years to put together, are several expressive wood carvings.

Mr Henkel, 45, points out that these "represent the beauty and power of a people rich in artistic heritage". This is apparent in several of the highlights, including a 17th-century sandstone seated male figure, considered a rare Batak sculpture.

He says Batak religion was "a mix of animism and ancestor veneration".

As such, many of the objects were carved for ritual purposes by specially trained priests known as datu.

"You can tell by their attention to detail that aesthetic details have always been very important to Batak people," he says.

What the objects on display also reveal is that none of these were produced in isolation. They reflect the dynamism of cultural connections as they show how Chinese porcelain travelled for trade as well as the connections between Hindu and Buddhist art.

Mr Henkel hopes this exhibition will go some way in creating cultural awareness about the various South-east Asian communities which make the artistic heritage of Asia as rich and dynamic as it is.



Toba Batak, late 19th century Wood, palm fibre, metal, rattan, textile, resin, saga seeds From the Mandala Foundation

Guardian figures such as these were deliberately made to look fierce to ward off evil spirits. The stern visage here is enhanced by a shock of hair fashioned from palm fibre and by the bright red eyes, which are inlaid seeds of the saga tree. The metal plate nailed to its chest seals a cavity that would have held pupuk, a substance that was believed to animate and give power to the figure. The disproportionately large head, angular features and the legs held tightly together, are considered signature elements of Batak sculpture.


Toba Batak, 19th century or earlier Sandstone From the Mandala Foundation

This heavily weathered sculpture shows a rider atop what may be an elephant or a horse. Such sculptures, known as hoda- hoda bakkuwang, are said to represent deceased rajas who were the powerful clan heads of traditional Batak society.


Toba Batak, 19th century Horn, wood, animal hide, fur, metal From the Mandala Foundation

The medicine horn is one of the most important pieces of equipment in a Batak priest's arsenal. This example has a stopper with a squatting figure carved with tense, angular features that lend it a stern look. This is greatly enhanced by the inlaid metal eyes. The wear around the figure's mouth suggests frequent ritual "feeding" to maintain its efficacy. What stands out in this piece is the exceptionally well-carved riding figure carved on the tip of the horn.


Toba Batak, 17th or 18th century Sandstone, natural pigments From the Mandala Foundation

This is considered a rare Batak sculpture as the pose is likely to have been inspired by Hindu-Buddhist sculptures. The figure is considered unusual as it has a relatively realistic representation of human features. Curator David Henkel points out that the angular jaw, blocky nose and elongated ears mark it as Batak sculpture. The figure, he says, probably represents a prominent local chieftain or important figure. The red and black stripes painted on the torso simulate a shirt, and also mark the figure as important. Such a combination of colours was reserved for powerful individuals.


Toba Batak, 19th century Wood, porcelain, rattan, palm fibre, metal From the Mandala Foundation

The regal figure on the stopper of this container rides atop a singa, a composite creature whose name derives from the Sanskrit simha or lion. The Batak probably learnt of lions from Malay or Minangkabau sources, but had little idea of what one looked like, as can be seen from this piece. Their representation of Singa usually combined elements of a horse and a naga or mythical serpent and often had an almost human face. The figure is finely executed, with tufts of palm fibre used for the hair of the rider and the singa's tail.

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Where: Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, Shaw Foyer

When: Till June 1 next year, 10am to 7pm (daily). Open till 9pm on Fridays

Admission: Free

Info: Call 6332-7798 or go to

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