Monumental wooden horses (ja heda or jara heda) with one male or a pair of male and female ancestor riders are among the largest and most striking Southeast Asian animist sculptures. Such sculptures were installed in front of the clan temples (sao heda) in the NagÃ© and KÃ©o regions of central Flores, not far from where Homo floresiensis (Flores Man, nicknamed 'hobbit') was recently discovered.
Throughout Flores, noble descendants of the ancestral, sometimes mythical, founders of a village take precedence over other lineages and clans. Ja heda are always associated with the descendants of the founding ancestors of major villages. In eastern Indonesian cultures, the horse is a symbol of the strength and the hunting (including headhunting) skills of the local ruler or chief, and equine motifs are prominent in the arts associated with noble families. The creation of the ja heda and erection of a new sao heda shrine require great wealth and elaborate ritual since hundreds of buffalo are sacrificed to the ancestors during the process.
The ja heda acts as a guardian at the entrance to the clan temple where the sacred clan heirlooms—textiles, buffalo horns from ancestral sacrifices, ivory and gold—are stored and pairs of wooden ancestor figures installed. The horse’s enormous size, standing high on long poles, makes it a powerful protector. Identified as spirit guardians capable of conferring wealth and power, these creatures, with their long graceful bodies, represent both horse (jara) and horse-headed serpent (naga). The flanks of the horse are deeply carved with decorative motifs also found on other central Flores art forms such as textiles, gold jewellery and architectural facades of clan houses.
Ancestors in animist Indonesia are usually perceived as couples who together created the universe and the community that now venerates them. In a dualist cosmology that recognises the complementary nature of male and female elements in all aspects of life and death, it is fitting that an ancestor couple (ana deo) is depicted. However, where a male equestrian appears alone, the horse and rider represent the male aspects and the clan temple is conceived as female. This is also the case in the neighbouring Ngada district of central Flores, where the male ancestor is represented as a thatched post and the female is now symbolised by a small house-shaped form.
The Gallery’s recently acquired sculpture has a finely carved and particularly charming pair of ancestor riders. The female sits side-saddle with her hand placed fondly on the shoulder of her male partner who confidently holds the rein. These equestrian figures are associated with the founders of the major village, ancestral leaders whose exceptional powers allow them to mount and fly on naga. The erect penises on both horse and male rider allude to fecundity.
This rare sculpture is a key work in the current major exhibition Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art at the National Gallery of Australia and will subsequently be on permanent display, from 2011, in the Southeast Asian gallery.
Senior Curator, Asian Art