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Volume 42, Number 4July/August 1991

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The Carvers of Bukittinggi

Written by Sigrid Laing
Photographed by Joseph Brignolo

The world is becoming increasingly familiar with the products of Indonesia's talented artists. The beautiful I batik paintings from Java, the slender wood statues I from Bali and the local jewelry from Sulawasi can be found in shops in New York or Paris. Fortunately, the natural wealth and beauty of the area around the Minangkabau town of Bukittinggi allowed both time and inspiration for the development of crafts, especially weaving (See page 20), silverwork and wood-carving. Although the wood-carvers of the Minangkabau may not be as well-known as some other Indonesian artisans, their strong sense of tradition and of dedication to detail makes a fascinating story.

Nestled in a high valley between the two volcanic mountains of Merapi and Singgalang is the small village of Pandai Sikek, better known as the "Wood Carving Village." The village is south of Bukittinggi, the cultural center of the Minangkabau, and east of Padang, the capital of west Sumatra. The terraced rice fields, lush tropical vegetation, cool breezes and abundant water of the Anai Valley have made it an ideal spot for creativity and an inspiration for centuries of wood-carvers. The neighboring forest provides an abundance of the wood called suriyan, a hard but workable medium for the carvers. Today, more than one hundred carvers claim Pandai Sikek as their home, though only a few can be found at work in the village. Many are away on contract assignments in Malaysia and in major Indonesian cities.

In the village, carvers knee-deep in wood shavings work in little huts along the roadside. Many have two or three apprentices carving repetitive patterns on small items to supplement their incomes. Cigarette boxes, jewelry boxes, ashtrays, bookholders, all can be purchased for sums that seem very modest in relation to the skill involved in making them. Most large items, such as chairs, tables and bed frames, are done on a custom-order basis, and all the shops were busy filling orders, evidence of both the continual xieed for their craft and the appreciation of their handiwork.

The village's Handicraft Center is a large framed hall whose outside and inside walls display a wide variety of the work done by the wood-carvers. The hall is also used as a center to instruct future wood-carvers: Recently, 19 students from Sekolah Menengah Seni Rupa, a fine-arts school in Padang, were being instructed, carving the letters of the alphabet and the numbers one through nine. Each student first stenciled a number or letter on a block of wood which he or she then chiseled, carved and sanded to a finished product. The village craftsmen took turns inspecting, advising and encouraging the trainees.

"Pandai" translates as "clever" and Sikek, according to one of several local traditions, is a contraction of Si Ikek, the name of a culture hero who introduced wood-carving in the area centuries ago. There are many "pandai" carvers in the village of Pandai Sikek today, such as one known as Bapak (Father or Uncle) Fauzi. His skill was developed through 20 years of memorizing, manipulating and mastering the styles and motifs his uncle taught him. As a young boy, Fauzi would intently watch his uncle's hands as they felt, touched, explored and worked the block of wood until an ornately carved treasure was created. Several years ago, Fauzi was chosen along with many of the other village carvers to work on the Minangkabau Palace of Pagaruyung. It was to be an exact replica of the royal palace destroyed by fire during the early days of Dutch colonial rule, and would be used as a museum to recall the wealth and artistry of the Minangkabau at the peak of their power. Fauzi jumped at the opportunity, because he would be able to see, learn and recreate many of the historical patterns used in wood-carving.

The patterns used on many Minangkabau wood carvings are believed by anthropologists to have been adapted from stone carvings found scattered about the Anai Valley. The original settlers of the valley, probably Hindus, believed strongly in ancestral and natural spirits, and portrayed these beliefs on the stones. Other patterns came from the artistic interpretation of the carvers as they observed the local flora and fauna. The designs taken from nature, such as the bamboo shoot, fern tendrils and sirih leaf, have been passed down from generation to generation, and have symbolic social and cultural meanings for the Minangkabau.

The early inhabitants arrived in elaborately carved boats, so it was to be expected that they would also carve their houses, and indeed the gables on each end of the roof are decorated with intricately carved wood panels. On these panels adorning the inside walls of their traditional houses, the bamboo-shoot motif is usually placed on the border and is representative of the three male leaders in the Minangkabau culture: the clan chief, the religious leader and the intellectual leader. The fern tendril is though to represent man as the Father and Uncle, symbolically signifying flexibility to turn inward and outward in dealing with the family unit. The sirih leaf is symbolic of male fertility. The traditional colors painted on the wood carvings of Minangkabau houses also have significance in the culture: Red symbolizes life, black stands for independence and yellow for wisdom.

The Minangkabau can be proud of their past and look forward to new generations of master craftsmen following in the footsteps of present-day masters. Bapak Fauzi and his fellow carvers now have the responsibility to pass on to the younger generation the traditions and skills they were taught by their elders.

Sigrid Laing is a Canadian free-lance writer who has lived abroad for 18 years, the last five in Sumatra, Indonesia.

This article appeared on pages 29-31 of the July/August 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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