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Mad in Pursuit: Indonesia Bright & Dark

3::Beyond Friendship Circle

1.22.97, Jakarta

Indonesia Jakarta National Museum ticketI should make a confession here. All philosophizing aside, we went to Indonesia to buy stuff. We were the Global Economy, our money belts stuffed with U.S. twenties and hundreds. But we had no interest in what their factories and sweatshops were pouring out. A far more ancient trade was our goal -- cultural artifacts. But don't get the wrong idea. The black market trade in lopped-off heads of ancient statuary would have appalled us -- and scared us to death. We didn't want to loot -- only to join the timeless travelers on old trade routes in the endless and serendipitous exchange of cultural bric-a-brac that join us all together.

Oh, I've read where the virtuous bead collector should collect only reproductions of ancient designs so as not to deplete a country of its cultural patrimony but I say to hell with that. Does that mean I'm bad? Or can I be trusted to know the difference between depredation and a healthy ecology of exchange?

That's a question to ponder over a bottle of wine. On a smog-sunny Wednesday morning in Jakarta, a trip to the National Museum is required to even know the difference between the genuine article and made-for-tourists fakery. 

The museum was dry and dusty. What I didn't understand at the time was how much of the economy was being siphoned into the bank accounts of Suharto's children and cronies. Indonesia was being sold rather than developed. The fat cats were not interested in endowing museums. 

We browsed the colorless cases, without noticing we were being cased ourselves. A man had been watching us and finally approached to ask if we were interested in buying. "Sure," says J. The man gave us his card, then said he'd pick us up at our hotel at 2:30. It made me nervous to give out our address so easily, but for J the hunt is always worth a risk.

indonesia moluccas bronze sculpture 48 cm.After the museum, we hiked around all the nationalistic monuments around Merdeka Square, then followed our guidebook's advice to go to antique shops on Kebor Sirih Timur street. The shops were small but geared toward foreign buyers. Items were interesting: roughhewn wooden carvings, life-sizes and weathered, as well as aged furniture and architectural ornaments, much of it from the outer islands. But they weren't exactly things we could tuck into our carry-on luggage.

By 2:30, jetlag had me cranky and ready for a nap, wishing we'd never made an arrangement with the stranger, but he arrived promptly and escorted us by taxi to his shop in the crowded front room of his home, beyond the opposite side of Friendship Circle. He was called Haj, because he'd made the once-in-a-lifetime journey to Mecca. The quality of his merchandise was good and J bit: a couple old Buddhist pieces and a pair of striking bronze figures from the Moluccas.*

For me, the experience was not about buying. Haj's neighborhood was my first glance at the Java behind the international hotels and monuments and museums and shopping strips. The scale had suddenly shrunk to tiny. Dwellings were honey-combed together, with narrow alleys for streets. Haj lived on the edge of a kampung -- a slum that rises around the only free resource: water from the wretched canal. I wanted to see more...

Posted 11.9.02

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Moluccas: used to be known as the Spice Islands, famous for nutmeg. It's having its share of problems. They belong to an organization I didn't know existed till today: Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. We can't find much written on these small bronzes (48 cm. high), except that they probably represent ancestors, coming from a part of the world "where ancestor spirits play an immediate and dominant role... Not only do they serve as a link to previous generations, but they guide activities in the present and determine prospects for both the immediate and distant future. Ancestors are ever-present and can influence destiny for both good and bad. As the procreators of mankind, their history is endless, and in stratified societies, they are the connection to the gods who sired humanity and who continue to validate chieftaincy and priesthood." (The Eloquent Dead: Ancestral Sculpture of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, edited by Jerome Feldman [out of print].