How a Sacred Indonesian Artifact Ended Up On The Fourth Floor of Mundelein

A professor in Loyola’s Department of Anthropology has reason to believe an Indonesian artifact currently possessed by the university was illegally obtained. 

The artifact in question is a sculpted wooden head from a Toraja effigy of the dead called a tau-tau. The Torajan people are an ethnic group indigenous to the mountainous region of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The artifact is part of the May Weber Ethnographic Collection which was donated to the department of anthropology by Dr. May Weber’s late husband Gerry Hoffman in 2012. The original gift included around 4,600 objects, of which approximately 2,500 are housed in the Collection on the fourth floor of the Mundelein Center.

Dr. Kathleen Adams, a professor of anthropology at Loyola, worked with Weber and was assigned to a committee to assess the viability of Loyola Acquiring the collection. Adams was the first to identify the Toraja effigy. In the past, she has written about the effigies and the tragedy of them being stolen and sold to art dealers and collectors, many of whom do not know they are stolen in her book “Arts as Politics: Re-crafting Identities, Tourism, and Power in Tana Toraja, Indonesia.” 

“For Torajas who follow the ways of the ancestors, these effigies are not simply representations of the deceased,” Adams wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “They also house the soul of the deceased and must be treated respectfully, honored, periodically nourished etc.”

In the 1970s, thousands of these effigies stood watching over gravesites. After the items became desired on the antiquities market, the coveted objects were plundered and sold by art dealers. Now only a few hundred tau-taus remain in Toraja villages, Adams explains in her book.

In the book, Adams describes a scene that took place in 1985 while she was doing fieldwork in Indonesia when thieves stole 14 of a family’s 27 ancestral effigies.

“We were greeted by teary-eyed fellow villagers who reported with great emotion that the ‘ancestors’ had been ‘abducted,’ Adams writes. “Upon learning of the theft, an elderly kinsman clutched his chest and sobbed, ‘Ohhhh, Indoku…’ (Ohhh, Mother.)”

Adams said she and Nichols were “deeply concerned to have this illegally extracted sacred object” in the collection. 

Currently, Adams is in discussion with the Indonesian Consul General to tackle governmental bureaucratic issues in hopes of working with the Torajans to identify and pursue their desires concerning the handling and repatriation of the tau-tau. 

Catherine Nichols is the director of the May Weber Ethnographic Collection at Loyola. She performs collection management and curatorial work for the approximately 2,500 items contained in the collection. 

“Keep in mind that repatriation may not ultimately be what Torajans want,” Nichols wrote in an email to the Phoenix. “The case-by-case nature of this is so important because it involves listening to what communities of origin are asking and prioritizing those requests.”

The work of returning an item to its country of origin is complex and takes time, Adams said, there is bureaucratic, logistical, and cultural complexity in returning such an item.

“Based on my years of fieldwork with Toraja carvers and elders, I knew that it belonged in its community of origin, but which community to return it to?” Adams wrote. “There are hundreds of different familial burial sites.”

The tau-tau head is being held in collections storage in Mundelein Center as the process moves along, according to Nichols. 

“Dr. Adams has indicated that Torajan communities have requested that these objects should be treated with respect while in physical custody of the collections,” Nichols wrote. “So when I or students handle this object, or when we are in its general vicinity, I remind students and myself to offer a verbal greeting and to refrain from using harmful language.”

Weber, who passed away in 2012, was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who worked in Chicago for 41 years. She was a prolific collector with a distinct interest in art, which drove her to found the May Weber Museum of Cultural Arts, as explained in her obituary published by the Chicago Tribune. 

Though Weber was passionate about collecting, she wasn’t an anthropologist or a museum professional and didn’t always create or keep comprehensive records, Nichols said. As a result, some objects in the collection lack thorough identifying documentation. 

Some items lack any substantial documentation while others are simply vague, Nichols said. For instance, an item labeled “Native American Rattle” does not denote what tribe or area the rattle may have originated from.

Adams explained that Weber was particularly interested in human imagery and masks.

The collection contains a large number of masks from a variety of cultural traditions and geographies, according to the university. There are approximately 300 historic festival masks from different regions in Mexico, and there are objects and masks in the collection from communities in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

Weber was very interested in collecting artifacts that demonstrated “everyday aesthetics,” Nichols said. The idea that humans everywhere possess their own aesthetic systems or systems of beauty. 

Part of the work Nichols and her students undertake is attempting to match documentation — receipts, invoices and correspondence — with specific items. Even if the documentation does exist, it can be very difficult to match the written description with a specific object in many cases, according to Nichols. 

In the May Weber Ethnographic collection, a box was found containing documents from Art of the Past, a Manhattan-based gallery run by Indian American art dealer Subhash Kapoor. In 2011, Kapoor was arrested and convicted for running a $100 million international smuggling racket that spanned over 30 years, The New York Times reported.

Kapoor’s operation included items in galleries and museums all over the globe, from the National Gallery of Australia to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. In 2022, 13 artifacts were seized from the Yale University Art Gallery in relation to the ongoing investigation into Kapoor.

“We have documents from the gallery Art of the Past,” Nichols wrote. “We are always reviewing the collection and are sensitive to provenance issues.” 

The university has said it is engaging in an effort to decolonize the collection, acknowledging it has been collected and curated under a Western scientific and aesthetic framework.  

“We seek to leverage university resources to implement decolonial practices surrounding its perpetual care and use in order to engage and make it accessible to the source communities represented in the collection,” Loyola said in an online statement. 

When asked if she thought there is a chance other items in the collection have been illegally extracted, Nichols said there is always a possibility who claims to own an object is not black and white or simply known or unknown.

“As I learn more by reading, by working with colleagues, by attending meetings and webinars, by visiting museums, by joining email list-serves, by working with students – I am always learning more about how to think about the objects in the Collection,” she wrote. “That ranges from ‘what is this?’ to ‘how should this object be cared for?’ to ‘are there communities of origin who want this object returned?’”

Because Loyola receives federal funding, the university collections are subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). 

There are about 20 objects contained in the collection of Indigenous materials, NAGPRA requires that the collection write a summary of the objects contained in the collection and send that summary to federally recognized tribes.

“Several tribes got in touch with us – they shared their knowledge about objects in the photographs and descriptions we had sent them, asked questions, and asked us to continue to share any information we found in the future,” Nichols wrote.

In June 2022, the collection hosted representatives from the Northern Arapaho Tribe which allowed them to observe several objects in person and assess if they would want to pursue repatriation.

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