Pierre Nachbaur

Interview with Truus Daalder, author of “Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment: Australia – Oceania – Asia”

How did you come to write your book?
Since about 1980 we had seriously collected ethnic jewellery and adornment, and when I left the paid workforce in 2002, the time seemed ideal to carry out overdue research into the pieces and the meaning behind them in their cultural settings. This happily coincided with a career change for our son. His taking the many photographs with us was a bonus: it was less expensive than it would have been with an outsider, but it also made experimentation easier, as e.g. with background types and colours. We not only got a splendid collection of high quality, but also joyful and colourful photos. At first we were unsure what shape and size the book would take, although, as inhabitants of Australia, we always wanted it to start on our side of the world, with Australia and the Pacific. Most books of this kind which we know start in Africa, but, after moving through Asia, taper off once they reach Oceania, and virtually no Aboriginal adornment had ever been included in any book. In many books there is not much specific text to help the viewer understand the deep significance of the objects shown. I wanted my book to enhance appreciation of ethnic adornment by detailed explanations of its function in the communities it derived from. 

Is the book based only on your own collection?
We realised that we owned few Australian Aboriginal ornaments and could not base a chapter on them. Hardly any are sold, and they also present formidable storage problems for private individuals. I therefore went to two Senior Curators at the South Australian Museum and asked if we could supplement our collection with objects from the Museum. The South Australian Museum is the only one in the country which has an impressive Pacific Gallery, and is also unique in possessing an Aboriginal Cultures Gallery. The curators generously gave their permission. About 90% of the objects in the Aboriginal chapter are from the Museum as are about half of the objects in the Oceanic chapters, which complemented our own remarkably well. From the Indonesian chapter on the book is based solely on our collection. During the seven years it took me to study the objects and the cultures which they came from, as well as to write the chapters, the collection kept growing, and the book with it. This is why it has ended up with 115,000 words and 704 photographs.

Can you say something about your research?
With a book that covers so many cultures from all over the world, the chief obstacle is that you get totally immersed in one particular culture, write about it, and then have to leave it behind and focus on a completely different one: e.g. to go from New Guinea to Tibet is a huge step! But at the same time you realise more and more that the value of these ornaments lies not just in their beauty or appearance, but in the fact that in their culture they expressed a series of strong emotions and a diversity of social phenomena: a member of the same group would know at once, on seeing your adornment, that you were a warrior, a bride, a chief, a widow etc. Perhaps the most pervasive emotions that are expressed are related to love and fear. Amulets take different shapes in different cultures, but serve the same purpose: to protect the wearer from evil, sickness and other misfortune. The West has kept only the wedding ring as an immediately recognisable symbolic piece of jewellery, but in the cultures I studied there were many more. The intention behind the book was to share this knowledge, and our passion, with others all over the world.

How did the writing and the photographs become a coherent book?
Our son made many trips from Melbourne, where he lives, to Adelaide, where we live, to take a seemingly endless series of photographs. I took great care in cross-referencing the objects with the text, so that anyone reading the text can easily find the relevant photo, and vice versa. Every chapter, once written, was thoroughly edited by my husband Joost, a professor of English. The two museum curators, Dr Philip Jones and Dr Barry Craig, were unstintingly helpful in giving comments, reading the chapters in their fields, and writing an introduction. The person who helped us to design the book had the patience of an angel. Finding a publisher who would take on such a major work proved difficult in this country. I finally set up my own company, Ethnic Art Press, and co-published with Macmillan, Australia. Although the ornaments are rapidly disappearing from their communities as people become more westernised and interested in modern accoutrements, this book will not soon date, based as it is in traditions belonging to the past. It may even help the original owners to appreciate what has been lost. We have had many messages which indicate that the book is greatly liked by many people, and this makes the many years of hard work worthwhile!

Any comments about the Indonesian chapter?
I have not included Papua, often still known as Irian Jaya, in the Indonesian chapter, but I have treated the island of New Guinea as a whole, which in terms of adornment makes more sense. It is interesting to note, however, that one thing which is fascinating about Indonesian jewellery is the tremendous variety in refinement and materials used: from fibre, shells and boars’ tusks to the most intricate gold objects. The most extreme example may be a fibre and shell necklace from Flores, which the rich chiefs apparently had copied for themselves in gold – though I have never seen the latter. The intriguing and beautiful comb from Tanimbar, worn ceremonially by warriors, was an object we were especially pleased to be able to collect, but was very difficult to find material about. No photograph of anyone wearing it appears to exist, and it was only because a helpful librarian in the Netherlands tracked down a line drawing in an obscure and old German book that I found out that the comb was called ‘flag comb’ because of the many attachments added to it for the dances where it was worn. Its intricate carving of wood and bone contrasts with the elaborate gold objects from Timor, Sumba and Sulawesi. The islands in the east of Indonesia had grown rich because of trade in exotic spices, horses, etc. and used gold in abundance. Much of this jewellery had a significant function in the life of the community and was carefully preserved, only to be brought out on the most important occasions, such as funeral ceremonies. Indonesia is a country of particularly interesting traditions.

  • — Stained gold amulet plaques (kawari), matching pair
    Indonesia, south Sulawesi; Bugis people; 19th century
    Stained gold
    10 cm diameter

  • — Decorative comb
    Indonesia, Lombok; Watu Telu people; early 20th century
    Buffalo horn and silver
    19.8 x 10.5 cm

  • — Raja’s gold betel nut box (kelembut hamayan) 
    Indonesia; Sumba people; 19th/20th century
    Gold (24 carat)
    10.1 x 10.5 cm; 2 cm diameter

    Its decoration relates to Sumba’s creation myth.

  • — Gold frontal in the shape of a crescent representing water-buffalo horns (lamba) 
    Indonesia, Timor; early 20th century.
    16 x 29 cm

    Worn on the forehead.

  • — Head ornament in the form of a snake (sanggori)
    Indonesia, central Sulawesi; Toraja people and other tribal groups; mid 20th century
    Brass, with 4 holes for attaching the ornament
    18 x 20 cm

    Worn by men on top of the head, attached to a cloth head cover or wound into the hair.

  • — Man’s ceremonial decorative comb (suar sair),
    Indonesia, Tanimbar, village of Alusikarwain; 19th century
    Wood, panels of carved bone 
    23 x 18.8 cm; 4.5 cm diameter

    Worn horizontally at the back of the head. Strip of carved bone along the top with holes for insertion of ornamental attachments.