Spotlight Stories

Animals in Indonesian Art

Rooster, horse, buffalo or monkey: who’s your favorite?

Fast. Strong. Scary. Varanus Komodoensis, or the Komodo dragon, reigns as the most famous animal in Indonesia. But while the Komodo retains that crown, other animals have similar cultural significance.

From mythology to contemporary art, whether in Batik or in paintings, these creatures and their characteristics tell us how fauna hold a special place in the Indonesian way of life.

1. The Rooster

In Southeast Asia, the rooster has roots in rituals as a sacred vessel to religious worship. In Indonesia, cockfighting is an ancient tradition from Balinese Hinduism.

I Ketut Tangen’s painting, Cockfighting, depicts this tradition outside a temple in bright colors. Three roosters are surrounded by local women who are taking coin offerings to decorate the temple. In Indonesia, cockfighting is recognized as a form of gambling when there’s no connection to a religious ceremony.

Cockfighting, 1990, by I Ketut Tagen (Collection: ARMA Museum)

The rooster is also well-represented in many batik textiles. Specifically, the Wild Madura Cock is sewn into symbolic patterns. In this batik from Cirebon, West Java, fine leaves and branches make up the silhouette of this majestic bird.

Kain Panjang 140, 1930, artist unknown (Collection: Galeri Batik YBI)

2. The Horse

There are more than 20 different breeds of horse in Indonesia, and their presence can be traced to the 13th century. In The Diponegro War diorama, showcased at the Monumen Nasional, and Ugo Untoro’s “Roar,” featured at the 2013 Yayasan Yogyakarta Biennale, the horse is a vehicle for man’s expeditions in discovery and war throughout history.

The Diponegoro War, 1972, Indonesia Fine Art Academy in Yogyakarta (Collection: Monumen Nasional‎)
Roar, 2013, Ugo Untoro (Collection: Yayasan Biennale Yogyakarta)

3. The Water Buffalo

The domesticated water buffalo is a representation of daily life in rural Indonesia and is widely used in farming, especially for tilling rice.

In ARMA’s Walter Spies collection, the water buffalo accompanies the farmer in his daily routine. Influenced by magical realism, the Dutch artist manipulates perspective and shows a stark image of the man, the creature and their land.

Landscape with Cow's Shadow, 1939, by Walter Spies (Collection: ARMA Museum)
The Landscape and Her Children, 1939, by Walter Spies (Collection: ARMA Museum)

4. The Monkey

The monkey has long been represented in Hindu mythology as brave, loyal and dedicated to justice. In the Ramayana epic, an army of monkeys attack Kumbakarna in a struggle to free the kidnapped wife of the hero Rama.

Kumbakarna Attacked by Monkeys, 1996, artist unknown (Collection: ARMA Museum)

What’s your favorite animal from Indonesian art?

Continue exploring the Wonders of Indonesia project here.

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