Papua Master Sculptors Bring Tradition to Jakarta
Nandra Galang Anissa
“Of the 157 tribes of Papua, I bet you can’t even name 10 of them,” Raymond Michael told a press conference at the opening of Papuan Culture Diversity Week: The Kamoro, at Bentara Budaya in Jakarta on Tuesday.
Raymond, who comes from the University of Indonesia’s Papua Center (PACE), was probably right. That limited public awareness, he said, is what drives PACE scholars to promote the region’s diverse culture to the larger Indonesian population. The exhibition, which runs until Sunday, focuses on the heritage of the Maramowe, the sculptors of the Kamoro people. “One cannot merely become a sculptor in the Kamoro tribe,” Raymond said. “They have to inherit the craft.”
The exhibition showcases hundreds of unique Maramowe sculptures of various sizes. It’s sponsored by Freeport Indonesia, the US-controlled company that operates the massive Grasberg mine near Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain in Papua. That’s near where many Kamoro live.
Simon Morin, a Freeport representative, stressed the need to promote Papua’s rich culture, especially since the region had recently come to be characterized by conflict and violence. “Exhibitions like this are very important, as people will get an in-depth understanding of the Kamoro culture, especially since each sculpture exhibited here has a different meaning behind it,” Simon said.
There are 18,000 people in the Kamoro tribe. Most of them live in 40 villages on Papua’s southern coast. About 15 percent reside near Timika, the town closest to Grasberg, for easy access the roads. The rest rely on the river for transportation.
Kal Muller, an American who has produced an extensive literature on tribal peoples, especially the Kamoro, said the influx of palm oil companies in Papua had endangered the Maraomwe craft. “They can hardly make sculptures bigger than 80 centimeters in diameter due to it [the forest] being replaced by palm oil plantations,” Muller said.
Much of Kamoro culture, especially their traditional celebrations, were wiped out during the Dutch occupation, Muller said. The only one they keep alive now is the child’s coming of age ceremony.
“With most of their traditional festivals gone, so goes the sculptures, because for every celebration they make a different, unique sculpture,” Kal said.
Another threat to Kamoro culture is the ports sprouting up along the Papuan coast. Most Kamoro youths turn there for work instead of to their ancestral craft. It’s not hard to see why, Raymond said, as working in the ports ensures a steady wage. Sculptors, meanwhile, can take up to a month to finish a piece, with no guarantee that someone will buy what they make.
“This is the main aspect of the Kamoro culture that is on the brink of extinction and we hope this exhibition will put the Maramowe art back on the map,” Raymond said.
Timotius Samin, a Kamoro elder, said it was crucial that Kamoro youths understand their people’s language. “If our local language disappears, slowly our culture will too,” he said.
With so many Kamoro traditions eroded or lost since outside forces came to dominate Papua, the Kamoro rely heavily on the younger generation to carry on or even revive the old ways. Besides sculpture, the Kamoro also have a rich heritage of song and dance. “When someone’s child does not want to continue to be a sculptor, I strongly stress the family to pass along the art to their nephews,” Raymond said.
The show is an ethnographic exhibition rather than an artistic one, Raymond said. “The items here are those that are use in the daily lives of the Kamoro people,” he explained. “For example, although the Kamoro live by the shore, they are not fishermen, which explains the shape of the boats that are exhibited here.”
The exhibition was opened by Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya and Women’s Empowerment Minister Meutia Hatta on Tuesday afternoon.
“This exhibition shows our highly regarded motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and our respect for the different cultures of Indonesia in order to keep the nation together,” Balthasar said during his opening speech.