The most resounding message of "The Eloquent Dead: Ancestral Sculpture of Indonesia and Southeast Asia," at UCLA's Frederick S. Wight Gallery, is a fundamentally foreign attitude: The dead are a lively presence.
This notion is known to everyone who has had a serious brush with ethnic art, but it is revealed with unusually strong impact in this extensive presentation of ancestral sculpture, enhanced by photo murals and slide shows. Even viewers whose concept of ancestral art is limited to a portrait of grandpa over the mantle or musty old family photos hardly can fail to note the difference between our egocentric curiosity about the old folks' appearance and the Asian artists' preoccupation with their ancestors' power.
Not that self-interest isn't served in this fearsome art; the dead are so prevalently a subject of so-called primitive art because of their perceived influence on the living. Still, there's a belief system in this art that's considerably more profound than our practice of tracking character and physical features.
That belief system precludes sweeping the dead into the bushes--or, presumably, the elderly into warehouses. The difference between our way and theirs is respect, and even if deference is bred of fear, it can hardly fail to touch sensitive observers.
What we see in "The Eloquent Dead" is more than a variation on the Christian concept of eternal life. The art from tribal Southeast Asia is not light and ethereal. Resoundingly dark and physical, it takes the form of everything from chunky wood figures to masks, coffins, trophy skulls, baby carriers and near-life-size puppets.
Religion runs through this array of artworks, but it's easier for Westerners to equate the sculpture with insurance. We pay fees to insure ourselves against death and injury, our property against theft, fire and earthquakes. The Asians represented in the exhibition surrounded themselves with ancestral sculpture for guidance, sanction and protection. Their villages, homes, cemeteries and family keepsakes were all the province of ancestors.
The powerful figures appear on stone megaliths, wooden staffs, shields, grave posts and canoe prows. Whole houses and boats are thought to represent ancestors, according to essays in the scholarly illustrated catalogue. No homes have been transported to Westwood, but visitors will find almost everything else: carved architectural posts and lintels, granary doors, amulets and ceremonial regalia.
One of the most intriguing pieces is a carved wooden "soul boat" from Borneo, used to transport the souls of a deceased chief and his kin to the land of the dead. This vessel, suspended from the ceiling, is loaded with miniature animals and armed figures.
The most prevalent ancestral works in the exhibition--and in the cultures represented--are sculptured figures. They are never more compelling than a wall of wood carvings from Nias Island, west of Sumatra. Collectively called adu, the most imposing of these angular figures are symmetrical images that stand with bent knees and wear elaborate, towering headdresses. They served as "house gods," protecting the residences of wealthy chiefs. Some other ancestral figures from the same island warded off specific diseases: epilepsy, stomachaches and problems resulting from pregnancy.
Such favors weren't granted lightly. The living not only had to carve remembrances of the dead and, in the case of important individuals, build monuments to them, they were also required to feed their deceased ancestors, offer them sacrifices and conduct elaborate ceremonies according to complex rituals. In short, the worlds of the living and the dead were so intertwined that nearly all human images in tribal Indonesia have ancestral connections.
"The Eloquent Dead," sponsored by UCLA's Museum of Cultural History, continues through Nov. 24. In conjunction with the show, Eric Crystal of the UC Berkeley Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies will speak on "Textile Traditions of the Toraja of Indonesia" in Haines Hall at 2 p.m. on Nov. 10. "Religion in Indonesia: The Way of the Ancestors," will be screened after the lecture, at 3:30 p.m.