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Premier special exhibition of Yale University Art Gallery's Indo-Pacific art collection opens
Figure of the Creator Deity, Indonesia, Raja Ampat Islands, Waigeo, 19th century. Wood. Lent by Thomas Jaffe, b.a. 1971. Photo: Johan Vipper.

NEW HAVEN, CONN.- East of the Wallace Line: Monumental Art from Indonesia and New Guinea explores the cultural characteristics of eastern Indonesia and coastal western New Guinea. Taking as its jumping-off point the “Wallace Line,” an ecological demarcation first recognized by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that runs through Indonesia between Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, the exhibition presents intricately decorated, large-scale sculptures and textiles, as well as more intimate personal and domestic objects. With more than 120 works from the 17th to 19th century, the exhibition features highlights from the Gallery’s permanent collection and select loans, many either too large or too fragile to be regularly displayed.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who together with Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution, first identified the division that bears his name on a trip to Bali and Lombok in 1859, during an eight- year stay in the East Indies. Wallace discovered significant faunal differences between Bali and the lands to the west of the Lombok Strait and Lombok and the islands to the east. He noted that the two islands “form the extreme points of the two great zoological divisions of the Eastern hemisphere.” The Wallace Line continues northward between Borneo and Sulawesi and then turns northeast, passing below the Philippines and north of the Sangihe and Talaud archipelagoes.

Though the Wallace Line does not follow a cultural divide between east and west in maritime Southeast Asia, there are certain iconographic and stylistic characteristics shared in the arts east of the Wallace Line, such as intricate, interlacing patterns and complex geometric designs. These characteristics are explored in the exhibition, which provides the opportunity to show some of the more monumental carvings and large ceremonial textiles in the Gallery’s Indo-Pacific collection.

Spectacular ritual and ancestral sculptures from the islands of Timor, Flores, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas form the focus of the display of objects from eastern Indonesia. From western coastal New Guinea, there are objects from the Raja Ampat Islands and Cenderawasih Bay, located in the Bird’s Head Peninsula. It was in this region that artists developed the so-called korwar style, which is characterized by distinctive facial features, including deep-set eyes and an arrow-shaped nose. Korwar figures represent ancestor spirits that are highly venerated but also treated with awe and caution. While korwar are religious objects, similar facial features are also found on objects that have a daily function, such as boat prows, tool handles, and household bowls.

“Most of the artworks in the exhibition were made to benefit communal and personal well-being,” explains Ruth Barnes, the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the Gallery and organizer of the exhibition. “Figural sculptures commemorate the village and lineage ancestors. Large structures, such as the Flores forked posts, were erected to ensure cosmic order and balance. These objects were originally placed in ritually significant locations, at the center of the village or in locations associated in legend or oral history with events that were important to the community.” However, not all of the objects on display were intended for use in a ritual or ceremonial context; there also are functional objects—spoons, swords, and knife or adze handles—that are embellished with striking accomplishment. The carvings and textiles on view show the artists’ ability to manipulate materials to create objects of exceptional quality.

At the time of Wallace’s explorations of the Malay Archipelago, there was a growing awareness of the region’s environment and its cultures, and by the early 20th century, Western artists and collectors had begun to appreciate these art forms. Several of the objects in East of the Wallace Line come from these early collections.

“These are objects of imposing dignity, presence, and aesthetic complexity,” states Laurence Kanter, Chief Curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art. “In this first exhibition drawn from our Indo-Pacific collections since the opening of our new galleries, it is at last possible to show the grandest and most monumental of them alongside the more intimate and personal—the exotic together with the commonplace—providing a truly inclusive vision of a fascinating and undeservedly little-known part of the world.”

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