For eight months from the fall of 1991 to the summer of 1992, I took a journey with my husband, Jordan Deitcher, through some of the most remote areas of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. We were researching the arts, cultures and healing traditions of tribal peoples with a sponsorship from the Musium Nacional di Indonesia in Jakarta. Traveling primarily without guides and developing a reasonable capability with the language enabled us to explore some of the less accessible areas and to have an open, direct interaction with the people we met.
South East Asia is one of the most extraordinary parts of the world. Breathtakingly lush landscapes, a wide range of exotic mystical cultures, powerful contemporary artwork, and fantastic body adornment, ranging from tattoos and piercings to elaborate headdresses, masks, and jewelry are just some of the wonders it holds.
The most profound impact of this trip came from spending an extended period of time amongst diverse peoples so strongly connected to the realms of the spirit. Both in remote tribal villages as well as in the large modern cities, people see no separation between the real and the spirit worlds; the cosmos represents one whole held in equilibrium by forces working in harmony. The spirit world is differentiated only by the fact that it is usually unseen. It is the artists in these cultures who bridge the two worlds by making the invisible world visible.
It is in their capacity as visionaries and healers that the artists have the highly respected, powerful and vital role of maintaining societal survival. Seeing their art and studying the thinking behind it inspired me to reconsider my own role as an artist in this society, particularly as a creator of intimate objects for the body.
Presented primarily through journal excerpts this article will focus on the culture, body decoration, and sacred objects of tribal peoples we visited in Northern Thailand, Malaysian Borneo and Irian Jaya, New Guinea. My intention in sharing this material is to inspire additional approaches to art-making and body adornment with respect to its form, content, and significance.
OCTOBER 29, BANGKOK
We arrived late last night after about twenty eight hours of travel. A bombardment of the senses: overwhelming traffic, street vendors selling marvelous strange looking foods: colored chilis, fishes, exotic fruits and brightly colored flowers. Whiny Thai music blasts from speakers on the streets. Yet amidst all this chaos, a meditative stillness and spirituality hovers over everything, placing it all in perspective.
Thai Buddhist s say, “Mai pen rai” (It doesn’t matter anyway): all is change – nothing stays, even happiness, always moving and circulating, like the river. Buddhist temples seem like futuristic space ships, with tall spiraling towers. Barefoot monks in orange robes holding gray umbrellas, file by, asking for alms. Sculptures of the Buddha, some small, some enormous, in the temples and on the streets, have a grace and stillness, meditative but uplifting.
“Spirit houses” are miniature houses up on stilts, often augmented with little people and furniture inside, and always with places for daily offerings of incense, rice, and flowers. They are everywhere – in front of restaurants, stores, all houses and even gas stations. The spirit house must be more beautiful than your own home or establishment so that the evil spirits will want to dwell there instead of bothering you in yours.
In certain markets, such as near the temple Wat Mahatat by the Grand Palace, vendors sell special amulets, spread out on tables. Magazines announcing ceremonial “awakenings” and the availability of specific and particularly potent amulets are widely displayed. Believed to empower their wearers and to offer protection from bad luck or bodily harm, amulets are owned by most Thais. They are usually stone carvings or ceramic castings of the Buddha in reclining, standing or sitting positions, various goddesses, and penises for potency.
An amulet’s power is “awakened” or released by receiving a blessing from an enlightened monk, who often is its actual maker. Certain monks are renowned for their holiness and the magical powers which they achieve in a deep meditative trance called “jhana”. Dwing jhana, the monks’ powers are psychically transferred to the amulet. The actual awakening of the amulet is accomplished when the monk sprinkles it with holy water while reciting certain prayers. This may also be accompanied by an elaborate ceremony in the main hall of the temple involving several hours of chanting and meditating.
To preserve the amulet’s potency certain customs must be observed: while sleeping, they must be placed at the head of the bed or in a shrine. When having sex, they must be removed, and when going to the toilet, they are hung down the back or placed in the mouth.
The tattoo is the ultimate amulet because it can never be lost or stolen. Until about fifty years ago, a woman from North or North Eastern Thailand would not consider marrying a man who did not have the full “pants tattoo”. These are dense designs which extend from the navel to the knees. Like amulets, tattoos also have to be “awakened” by a tattoo master with knowledge of verses of power. During the tattoo process, the master selects the “heart” of the tattoo’s design – the place where the magical powers will reside.
We had an incredible day, hitching a ride with a Hungarian couple along winding roads and hairpin turns to breathtaking heights of gorgeous scenery. Finally we arrived at an Akah village and entered through their spirit gate, the base of which was carved with crude wooden figures displaying sexual organs. They are placed there to scare away the bad spirits who dislike material wealth and sexuality.
The Akah people live in simple woven thatched houses and wear beautiful, brightly colored appliquéed costumes decorated with silver domes and coins, beads and dyed fur. The most ornate part of the woman’s daily outfit, is her hat, bedecked with beads, tooled sheet silver or aluminum, domed metal discs and coins, and the wings of iridescent green beetles. The people were friendly but shy and very grateful for the antiseptic cream we provided for a crying little boy with a badly infected eye.
DECEMBER 10, MAE HONG SON
We stayed all day and overnight with the Karieng from Burma. The women coil heavy-gauge round brass wire around both their necks and their legs from the ankles to their knees, as a sign of elegance and beauty. Girls start to wear the coils at around age five and have until the age of twenty to decide if they wish to abandon the tradition. After this age their neck muscles will be too weak to be self-supporting, and removal of the coils will suffocate them. We are told that this is a very effective punishment for adultery. It is odd and fascinating to see these quite beautiful, yet completely otherworldly women, with their giraffe like necks that glow in the candlelight.
JANUARY 6, KUALA, LAMPUR, MALAYSIA
We saw an incredible exhibition in the Musium Negara called, “Heads and Skulls in Human Culture and History” and were quite taken with the art of the Dayak peoples of Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) with which we were not familiar. Through our Tamil friend Shanti we learn of Mother, an extraordinary psychic healer, (bomoh in Malay), who channels the goddess Kali. In a dramatic, candle-lit ritual involving prayers and offerings of flowers, limes, incense and a live chicken, Mother exorcised a demon from my husband which, she claimed, had been ruining his life and keeping him from success and happiness.
She told him that the demon entered him twenty-five years ago at the death of someone who loved and cared for him. She gave us both silver tayathe which are rounded cylindrical amulets that she filled with jasmine buds, red powder, and strips of thin copper on which she had written our names and prayers. We realized later with a jolt that the day we saw her was exactly the twenty fifth anniversary of the death of Jordan’s grandmother, who used to say to him “Kain eine horah”: Yiddish for, “No evil eye”. I can say now two years later, that his life continues to improve.
JANUARY 27, 1992
We are in the heart of Borneo, the world’s third largest island, heading up the Baram River to visit a Kenyah Longhouse. (The Dayak of Sarawak include a range of tribes including the Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit, Bidayu, Iban and Penan peoples.) On either side is very dense jungle as far as the eye can see; lush with endless varieties of ferns and palms as well as many tall trees intercepted by dark vines. We pass many longhouses, perched high up on stilts, close to the banks of the river. These are large structures forty to fifty feet wide and up to five hundred feet long, separated into individual apartments for each family and fronted by a long, common verandah.
We come bearing gifts such as liquor, canned goods, sarongs, and cigarettes for the head man, the Thai Rumah. Hopefully, following the customary Kenyah hospitality we have been told to expect, he will offer us food and shelter in the longhouse. We have no idea what awaits us, and we hurriedly run through our Bahasa Malay vocabulary so we are able to communicate the basics.
The modern world has certainly visited here and sits alongside the traditional in sharp juxtaposition. The boat we are on is a Chinese-owned, streamlined, super power boat which carries about fifty people upriver at around forty mph. While traveling in the air-conditioned cabin, we are entertained by violent Kung-fu videos, showing all sorts of brutality and rape. The Dayak travelers, elegantly dressed in their traditional sarongs, with dense tattoos and extended earlobes (intentionally stretched by heavy brass earrings), sit mesmerized. One wonders what they make of all this. Then again, it wasn’t so long ago that all the Dayak tribes were fierce headhunters. This was outlawed by the beloved British Rajah Brooke in the nineteenth century. During the battles of World War II, the Dayaks were permitted, much to their delight, to take the heads of Japanese invaders.
In a number of the longhouses we’ve visited, clusters of smoked skulls hang from rafters. The ultimate power object, a skull ensures prosperity and good harvests and restores tribal harmony after disturbances such as the death of a chief; failed crops, or an epidemic. From a young age the boys were taught that they would not reach manhood until they had brought home a severed head. Only upon fulfilling this rite of passage were they entitled to take a wife and to partake in the tribal decision making processes. This act of headtaking was permanently acknowledged by an elaborate throat tattoo.
The Iban men tattoo their torsos, shoulders, thighs, and arms with images of abstract dragons, whirling spirals and rosettes. In the Kenyah and Kayan tribes the women are the ones to receive tattoos, covering the hands and lower arms and the feet and lower legs with intricate scrolls, dragons, and spirit faces. Like the Thai tattoos, the designs are magical protective devices to ward off evil.
The tattooing is done on the open verandah in front of the longhouse. The male tattoo masters first draw the designs, allowing themselves to be inwardly guided to create an appropriately empowering image. Since it is taboo for men to draw blood except in anger, the actual tattoo process is done by a woman. A thorn or needle attached to a handle is gently and repeatedly beaten with a mallet pressing a mixture of soot, pigfat, and sugarcane under the skin.
Taking between six and eight hours, the painful tattoo process is relieved by chewing betel. In harmony with their belief that all things in the next world are reversed, they aim for the darkest possible tattoos because ultimately these marks will shine brightly in the dark and assist the spirit of the deceased man or woman in finding its way.
Dayak men and women also undergo piercings. The male warriors wear a panther or tiger fang in a hole pierced in the upper ear pavilion. The Kenyah, Kayan, and Penan women and the Kelabit men wear very heavy brass earrings to extend the length of the pierced earlobes to well below the shoulders, which has traditionally been considered a sign of beauty. Other ceremonial adornment worn to demonstrate wealth, includes silver cuffs, large repousséd belt buckles, elaborate multi-tiered headdresses, earrings, and thick coiled fiber waistbands threaded with silver rings. Most of the more recent Dayak metalwork is created by Chinese jewelers.
Body and facial hair is considered unattractive so eyebrows, beards and eyelashes are shaved or plucked. Teeth filing is also practiced, as in Bali. Teeth are either filed level or to sharp points using stones. Occasionally holes are drilled in teeth and filled with brass studs or capped in copper or gold.
We are at Long San, further up the Baram River. The Tuai Rumah’s house, where we are staying, has beautiful painted walls with wooden openwork designs of hornbills and faces with radiating spirals – a tree of life with all its interconnections and pulsing energy. I am sitting out on the verandah facing a Borneo jungle of densely covered mountains and palms. It looks like an intense tropical storm is about to begin.
We learn that beads, once traded as currency, are also highly valued because they house protective spirits. On the walls are large fat circular beaded hats with figures and spiral designs. The most prevalent is Aping, the Tree of Life, depicted as a sunlike face. Around the room are a few magnificent beaded ceremonial hats with patterns of striped goat’s hair and hornbill feathers. Also I see baby carriers with woven beaded surfaces sewn onto carved wood and leather structures and decorated with old coins and tiger teeth. The teeth serve as protective amulets to keep the baby from any danger. I love the way they combine such a range of materials so elegantly and harmoniously.
A number of travelers we’ve encountered from the States and Europe, most in their early twenties, have piercings in exotic parts of their bodies and elaborate tattoos, many of which are based on Dayak spiraling imagery. They were excited to spend time amongst the tribes who had inspired their body decoration. I wonder what the effect of meeting these young Westerners will have on the Dayak young who have abandoned the tattooing and piercing in a desire to be modern.
FEBRUARY 9, LONG ANTAWAU
We arrived last night, after about four hours of travel past the last stop of the powerboat. A flock of exhuberant children were waiting at the river’s edge. This is the most wonderful longhouse so far and has an entirely different feeling. These Iban, who seem to have been far more successful in integrating the old with the new, are very energetic, highly spirited people. We are touched by the mutual support within the entire community young and old, so dramatically different from what we saw with the Kenyah.
After a surprisingly good dinner of ginger chicken and jungle ferns, I am delighted to see how everyone sits on the longhouse verandah engaged in some form of artistic activity. Many looms are set up, and both young and old women are weaving, dying, and spinning the fibers for the ikats.
The Iban women are known for their remarkable hand-dyed ikats, called ‘puas”, which depict headhunting scenes, with stylized animal, bird, human, and spirit images. On an equal status with the men’s hunting, the weaving of the puas is referred to as the “Women’s Warpath”. Because of the high skill involved in this intricate work, a master weaver brings as much prestige to her family as does a famed warrior. The women must have special dreams before they can become weavers. After this they are trained for years by the master weavers to gradually take on more and more complex imagery.
In the headhunting days, the Iban were the fiercest and most feared Dayak tribe in all Borneo. In those days, the puas held the honored position of receiving the sacred severed heads. They were, and still are, used in ceremonies and in rituals of birth and death.
Others around us are bead weaving or splitting bamboo strips and weaving large three foot tall baskets to carry rice back from the fields. Men, heavily tattooed on their torsos, throats, and thighs, sit and chat while mending their fishing nets and drinking tuak, the local rice wine, which is favored with ginger and wonderfully potent. We, of course are, “forced” to partake, and our glasses are continually refilled as we assume our role of the local entertainment for the next few days.
Dream revelations are a vital part of Iban life and must precede all important decisions. During our stay, we witnessed an elaborate, lengthy ritual to purge the village of the evil spirits released by a villager’s bad dream. The twenty-four hour long ceremony involved the ritual slaughter of some chickens, the eating of special foods and the chanting of the village bards for over twelve hours. The bards, highly learned and honored elders, chant prayers and recite stories of the village’s history while circling pillars of wood covered with puas placed in the center of the longhouse verandah.
Mindun, our host’s mother took a fancy to us and honored us with gifts of glass-beaded birth bracelets which provide protection from birth until death. With these we were “reborn” with new Iban names: mine, Dian Sapat, and Jordant, Binyawai. By the time we were leaving the next day, the entire village was calling us by our new Iban names. I was truly sad to leave, yet eager for quiet time to absorb the intensity of all we had witnessed of these remarkable people.
JUNE 3, 1992, TAMENA, ON FLIGHT TO IRIAN JAYA, NEW GUINEA
Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, lies below us, dense and impenetrable. From above, one can understand why this part of the world has remained so cut off from the rest of the planet. Thick brush covers most of the island which includes a thousand square miles of jungle, swampland, and extensive areas of high craggy snow-capped mountains. Because travel is so difficult and only possible via missionary aircraft or small boats, there are still “undiscovered tribes” here, and an estimated three hundred different languages.
Right at the airport we were greeted by men with painted bodies, naked except for marvelous feather hats, armbands and penis gourds, called “kotekas”, made from the outer rinds of an elongated pumpkin-like gourd. Some people wear tee-shirts and western clothes, so there is a strange clash of centuries.
This afternoon was a political rally. Parading in circles on a big field were running, dancing, jumping, and chanting Dani and Lani warriors, bedecked with elaborate war headdresses of cus-cus fur and dramatic feathers of such birds as the cassowary, the white egret, and the colorful parrot. They wear necklaces of boar’s tusks, fiber, seeds, and cowry, snail, and baler shells, which look like large white spoons; armbands of woven fibers; kotekas tied around their waists and under their scrotums. Their bodies are painted with mixtures of soot and pig fat, or colored clays.
The women, who also paint their bodies, are topless and wear grass skirts and noken, large crocheted bark string bags that hang down their backs supported by a strap around their foreheads. These are used to carry sweet potatoes, babies, piglets, and tools, to warm their shoulders and to protect their backs from ghosts.
Both men and women regard body hair, aside from the ringbeard and beehive hairdos of the men, as repulsive. Each day they diligently remove excess hair with tweezers made of aracucaria twigs. These people are animists and are very wary of ghosts and bad spirits, who must be appeased periodically with offerings of sacred pig meat. Body adornment, usually created by the men, is used for displays of wealth, power, and splendor, as well as to offer protection from evil spirits.
We are trekking for six days in the magnificent Baliem highlands. The scenery is spectacular – lush mountains, waterfalls, rushing rivers, and rich hills carved up by farming, dotted with round thatched houses which are surrounded by palms and reddish purple shrubs. We are in Lani country, a different tribe distinguished by thicker penis gourds tied to their bodies with big red sashes, in which they store tobacco and money.
Along our path we encounter fierce looking warriors with boar’s tusks extending from their nostrils ,who touch our hands and greet us with a gentle,”Waaah”. Passing riverbeds, they stop and scoop out ochre to decorate their bodies, sometimes adding leaves or flowers to their “everyday” feathered headdresses.
Suddenly, flocks of children surround us, singing gentle and sweet Lani songs, holding our hands, carrying our bags, and aiding those of us terrified to cross the fragile, swaying bamboo and vine bridges that traverse the thundering rivers below. Arriving in the villages we are surrounded with curious, giggling onlookers who gingerly touch our white faces and smooth hair and peer into the video camera. At night we stay in a village house and provide local entertainment by answering questions, bathing in rivers and initiating songs and dances where we share our worlds and transcend our differences.
We are in a small Cessna on a missionary flight to the swamplands of Senggo in the south. From there we will arrange a boat to take us to the smaller rivers off the Arafura Sea, where we will visit various tribes of Asmat cannibals whose extraordinary and powerful carvings I have seen and admired for years in the Rockefeller wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
This is precisely the area from which the young Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared in 1961 while collecting magnificent carvings for the Museum of Primitive Art. The Asmat world is richly inhabited by spirits. Carvings are given names of former ancestors and are thought to take on their powers. These ancestral spirits require fulfillment of obligations, especially retaliation for death. In turn, they will benefit the living by maintaining harmony in villagers’ relations, sufficient food supply, protecting against natural disaster and disease, and ensuring procreation. This fulfillment is achieved through specific ceremonies, offerings, and the creation of carved objects in the form of drums, sculptures, spears, oats, and shields.
The Asmat believe that no death is natural and this informs much of their artwork. When it occurs, even from disease or old age, a shaman is called upon to determine who has caused the death and who, therefore, must be chosen for vengeance. In preparation for retribution, a tall bis pole will be carved from a mangrove tree, sometimes twenty feet tall, depicting the dead person and his family, along with abstracted animals and snakes. The bis pole will house the dead person’s spirit until another life has been taken.
Although all Asmat men are adept at basic wood carving, certain ones are renowned for their mastery. These carvers are commissioned to make various objects for other tribesmen, during which time they and their families will be well fed by the commissioner. Master carvers are highly respected and are encouraged to take as long time as necessary to create a powerful work.
We have been traveling in a large dugout with two boatmen for days. We turned a corner down a smaller stream and arrived at the village of Atjambut and the entire village came to the the river banks to greet us. Almost immediately the men started to heat up their lizard skinned carved drums to ready them for playing. We asked if they had many tourists. “Yes, many”, was the reply. And when were the last ones there? “Oh, ten years before.”
A group of about five men in a circle started beating away on their drums and singing a sort of eerie moaning chant. The men and women ripped off their shredded tee-shirts, (imposed by the missionaries), applied paint to their bodies, stuck huge spiraled shells through their noses, and started to wildly dance in front of the Jeu, or men’s house. After about a half an hour of deliberating about proper etiquette, a lawyer, travel companion, Bruce, who loves to dance, and I decide to jump in, but in different areas as the sexes dance separately.
The natives shrieked with delight and quickly rushed to decorate us with paint, grass skirts and a cus-cus fur headdress decorated with red seeds and white feathers. Fortunately, we have this documented on film to show our grandchildren because I did not quite believe this was happening. After a couple of hours of this, I was exhausted, but the nonverbal exchange I had with the women with whom I danced left us smiling and hugging.
The activity continued inside the Jeu, a long open thatched building on stilts with a fragile floor of loosely connected branches. Here the men hang out away from wives and children. They sleep, chant, tell stories, carve and plan wars. Asmat men are bisexual, and their most important, sacred bond is with their mbai, a soulmate from childhood with whom they share their first sexual experiences. Later in life when they have wives, a man will share his wife with his mbai to further strengthen the bond of trust.
The dancing and chanting continued from about three in the afternoon until six the next morning. Sometimes the dancing stopped and there was more singing, punctuated by loud moans and yelps. We went about our business, cooking our dinner, pitching our mosquito net tents, and futilely attempting to sleep. By about three or four AM we whispered across to our Western comrades what had been on all of our minds for quite a while, “Maybe there is something going on we should know about?” Jordan reassured us with his practical philosophy, “When your number’s up, your number’s up”.
We survived the night and left early the next day. Before our departure, Onep, the woman with whom I had danced, presented me with a feathered bark bag. I, in turn, gave her one of my earrings in sterling and niobium which looked quite dramatic with her dark skin, dog’s teeth necklace, and striking white shell nosepiece.
JUNE 13, BIWAR LAUT
As we enter this village, known for its excellent carving, we pass docked dugouts with beautifully carved prows. After exploring the village we are invited into the Jeu where an array of carved oars, spears, dog’s and boar’s teeth necklaces, woven arm bands, carved shell nosepieces, shields, and powerful figurative sculptures are spread before us.
Not as elaborate as that of the tribes in the Baliem Valley, the Asmat body adornment consists of large spiraled shells or carved pig-bones nosepieces worn through pierced septums, dog and boar teeth necklaces, cus-cus fur hats with feathers and red seeds, woven fiber armbands into which are inserted sjurus, sharp daggers made from the legbone and long black whisks of the dangerous, ostrich-like cassowary bird, and armlets of two boar’s tusks with hanging cassowary feathers which are worn to indicate the taking of a head. This, along with a pig’s teeth necklace I purchased in Senggo, is surprisingly comfortable and well fitted to the body.
JULY 22, JAKARTA
As we cross over the line to immigration I comment to Jordan that the next airport we arrive in will be Narita, Tokyo and that I will miss hearing and speaking Indonesian. In the middle of the word, “Indonesian”, the amulet from Mother, that I have not removed the entire trip, literally flies off my neck.
Since returning and absorbing the profound effects of this trip, the manner in which I approach my work and my teaching has changed dramatically, focusing far more on the healing and spiritual aspects of my artistic process. “Amulet”, I discovered, comes from the Latin, “medicine”. Researching the historic and international folklore of amulets and talismans, I feel a connection to the historic role of jewelers as makers of healing objects for the body. This is informing and inspiring a new direction in my images.
In his book, “Awakening the Artist Within”, Peter London writes,
“An image, a dance step, a song may function from time to time as entertainment, but the root and full practice of the arts lies in the recognition that art is power, an instrument of communion within the self and all that is important, all that is sacred. Seen in this capacity, the making of artwork can be a powerful and transformational vehicle for personal and collective transformation.”