Pierre Nachbaur

Interview with Bruce W. Carpenter

After a gap of more than 25 years since J. P. Barbier’s groundbreaking work, Power and Gold, the appearance of two major new books on Indonesian jewellery in the last six months — Ethnic Jewellery from Indonesia and the monumental tome Gold Jewellery of the Indonesian Archipelago — comes as a grand surprise. Even more extraordinary is that both works are from the same publisher, Editions Didier Millet, and Bruce W. Carpenter, who authored the first work with French expert Antonio Guerreiro and the second with Australian scholar, Anne Richter, who previously authored the acclaimed Jewellery of Southeast Asia. In an exclusive interview Carpenter discusses the wherewithal and reason for this double whammy.

Pierre Nachbaur: Why two books on the same subject and the same time?
Bruce Carpenter: This is an immense subject that has been neglected or dealt with in bits and pieces ever since Power and Gold. Even with near to 500 pages, Gold Jewellery of the Indonesian Archipelago, does not feature the gold work of Java and Bali except when found or used in the outside islands. Such a book only on gold would take another 500 pages.
How repetition in the texts?
In truth the books are complimentary to each other. Ethnic Jewellery features jewellery made of all but ephemeral materials. Gold, of course, focuses on the noble metals. As for the texts these tackle the subject from completely different perspectives. Ethnic Jewellery is an historical account of the origin and evolution of forms and ornament beginning with stone and progressing to gold. In Gold Anne and I emphasize mythology as well as history.
Which book would you say is more important?
Since there is no correct answer to this I would like to say the problem is that it is a wrong question! No doubt many of the objects in the first book, which are from the collection of Frenchman Manfred Giehmann, will not appeal to ‘elite’ tribal aficionados because he has seen fit to include a vast array of material that is usually overlooked as being ethnographic. Such prejudices are sad because they amputate our understanding of the breadth and development of the tradition. For good or bad I belong to those who believe in complete rather than fictive, edited histories like those written by totalitarian states.
What about the link between age and authenticity?
This is another sad state of psychosis that afflicts many members of the tribal community who prefer a fantasy world to the grit and grime of the village. While age is of great import especially from an historical perspective, the proper definition of authenticity is that it was made for ritual or ceremonial use not as a souvenir solely to sell or defraud. In particular Giehmann’s collection includes both ancient and relatively new pieces that mirror his aim to document living traditions. Since the vast majority were collected in situ the only possible debate involves personal taste. I personally prefer ancient pieces but I despise the ignorant pompous idiots that parade themselves as divine Bishops. Ironically most of these geniuses know little or nothing on the subject and are strongly anti-academic.
What about Gold?
Gold picks up where Barbier’s collection left off. It includes a broader array of Islamic and Chinese gold that allows a better understanding of the to and fro with older tribal traditions. The breadth of the collection is also mindboggling showing infinite but always startling variations on the theme over a vast period of time and space.
How was it working with your co-authors?
Both Antonio and Anne are consummate professionals. As with Achim Sibeth I work very well with other scholars because we recognize each other’s strengths and appreciate that sharing perspectives helps forge new important insights. I come to the table with close to 30 years of experience in the field during which time I have seen tens of thousands of objects. This is complimented by a thorough knowledge of virtually all published works in European languages. I have also seen the majority of museum and many private collections. Anne and Antonio also brought vast experience. In particular working with a woman taught me much about the importance of intuition and the mytho-poetic nuances of legends and stories.
Future plans?
Indonesian art of virtually all categories has been largely passed over because of the dearth of serious publications and exhibitions. Numerous books and exhibitions of African, Oceanic, Chinese and Indian art appear every year.
In comparison the arts of Indonesia remain terra incognita. After authoring and co-authoring over 16 books on related subjects I have no intention of stopping but certainly would like to work more from behind and allow other scholars to join the fray. Unfortunately the current trend is for dealers to publish hodgepodge catalogues with often-atrocious texts and layouts. The worst are pretentious, self indulgent and inaccurate. Like the emperor in new clothes they strut about as if no one notices that these are shoddy print on demand shopping catalogues.