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Art From the Island of Hobbits

Indonesian statue reshapes Australian gallery

Nov 21, 2006

(National Gallery of Australia)

CANBERRA–An Indonesian weaver and her suckling baby are reshaping Australia's national art gallery.

The Bronze Weaver, a tiny 1,400 year-old Indonesian statue, has gone on exhibition at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra in an attempt to lure art-wary Australians away from traditional European masterworks and educate them in Asian forms.

"With its intriguing sixth-century dating, The Bronze Weaver may be the most striking, rare and important object of Indonesian ancestral art in existence," Robyn Maxwell, the gallery's senior curator of Asian art, told Reuters.

The statue depicts an Indonesian weaver, her hollow, bronze-rimmed eyes gazing over a loom, as her baby suckles on an uncovered breast. Around the weaver's neck is a double-stranded necklace, while the baby clutches her back with one hand and grasps for her other breast as the woman pauses in her work.

The gallery bought the 10-inch statue last month for $3 million, a huge amount for similar works. Dating from between AD 556 and 596, the sculpture was found in a cave on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores, made famous last year for the remains of a disputed new class of pint-sized human "Hobbits." It survived a millennium as a family heirloom.

The weaver is clad only in a knee-length skirt, typical of remote parts of Indonesia and Borneo until recent decades. And while the meaning of the statue is not fully understood, it was likely linked to fertility or ancestor ceremonies.

Maxwell says the sculpture is the gallery's most important Asian acquisition and will be the centerpiece of a new wing featuring pieces from across Southeast Asia and India, including one of the world's richest regional textile collections.

The statue recalls the animist religion found across most of Indonesia prior to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, and which still exerts a powerful hold over parts of the country. But mystery surrounds its origins as little is known of animist metalwork in Indonesia.

"The Indonesians tend to concentrate on the great periods of their history, around their great world-class monuments like Borobudur and Prambanan," said Maxwell, referring to the wondrous Buddhist and Hindu temples in southern Java.

The Bronze Weaver was created by molding wax over a clay center, then encasing the shape in a second clay sheath. Molten bronze was poured into the space left by the draining wax and the outer shell was broken open to reveal the bronze inside. The clay core remains and was used to date the statue.

"The sureness of form and the superb rendering of detail in the face, hair and loom demonstrate the highly developed bronze casting skills of early Southeast Asian metalsmiths," Maxwell said.

National gallery director Ron Radford says the Bronze Weaver's purchase from a private European collector marks a move away from late 19th and 20th century European masterworks amid soaring prices. It also represents an attempt to move past the turbulent stewardship of former Irish director Brian Kennedy, who headed Australia's national gallery between 1997 and 2004.

Kennedy clashed frequently with the board over direction and high-profile purchases such as Lucian Freud's "After Cezanne" and David Hockney's "A Bigger Grand Canyon." "In addition to providing the general public with a coherent introduction to the history of Asian art, the gallery will strengthen the collection with key works from the entire Asian region," Radford said unveiling the weaver statue.

Maxwell said the purchase had come at the right time for the gallery, coinciding with a new director interested in Asian art and a governing council supportive of a fresh direction. When added to the Asian textiles and other purchased works from Thailand and Vietnam, the statue would also help win support among Asian gallery curators for future NGA exhibitions.

"We really made a point of collecting and sort of labeling animist art that comes from those non-Islamic, non-Hindu-Buddhist periods. That is something that has tended to be overlooked by both foreigners and Indonesians," Maxwell said. "They see that we really treat the piece as art, rather than just part of a bigger ethnographic exhibition."

In the meantime, the Bronze Weaver was bringing new fans to a gallery much-criticized since its opening in 1982. "It is so fantastic that it was offered to us," Maxwell said. "We say now we're the perfect spot for it, but this is Canberra, Australia, after all, and for many European collectors and others we would not have been the first spot thought of."