The Art of the Lesser Sundas by A F Granucci

The Art of the Lesser Sundas by A. F. Granucci

The Art of the Lesser Sundas is the first book that deals comprehensively with the art of Indonesia’s southeastern islands in its entirety. Until this book, only monographs have been published on the arts of single islands or focused on a particular art tradition (usually textiles) or dealt with art pieces of individual islands in publications covering a broader framework of “Southeast Tribal Art,” such as various publications of Musee Barbier-Muller.

The whole history of Lesser Sunda art is fascinating. The art of this specific region has for many years been difficult to categorize, which ultimately resulted in it being neglected and ignored. This is because of the attitude that if a Southeast Asian ethnic group hadn’t been influenced by India or China, it wasn’t worth studying. The first discoverer of the rare prehistoric stone and bronze artifacts of Indonesia’s eastern seas was Rumphius (1627-1702) during the European Age of Exploration, which kicked off an interest in the ethnography of the Lesser Sundas. Still, the scientists and explorers of the day (17th C. to 19th C.) could not bring themselves to accept these curious objects as “art.” It wasn’t until the late 19th C and early 20th C. that ethnographers accepted the archipelago’s tribal arts for their aesthetic qualities.

The first European artist to visit Nusatenggara was Neiuwenkamp in 1917. The account of his journey, in which he recognized the artistic merit of the region’s strange ethnic sculptures, was published in 1925. Neiuwenkamp helped change the public’s perception that these were not just crude ethnographica but legitimate expressions of the human spirit, just as valid as any tradition of Western or Asian art. Later, when the region’s archaeology was enthusiastically reviewed in such landmark publications as Clair Holt’s Art in Indonesia, this rather abstruse field of study started to come into its own. In the 1970s and 1980s, J. P. Barbier was a pioneer in recognizing the true value of Indonesian tribal art.

Characterized as “tribal,” “primitive,” even “revolting,” artifacts from the region were housed in museums of natural history. Now the extraordinary tribal art of Lesser Sunda no longer has to fight its way through the doors of art museums and galleries. Bearing a very strong family resemblance to mainstream Oceanic and Melanesian art, Lesser Sunda art gradually became accepted into the museums of the world, usually placed under the overall category of Africa, Oceania and Americas.

Artistically speaking, what’s unique about Nusatenggara is that these islands remained mainly beyond the influence of the Indian civilization that had made such an impact on the Greater Sunda Islands of western Indonesia. As this lavishly illustrated book points out, in the Lesser Sundas are found the remnants of a type of art made by the first people who arrived in the archipelago from New Guinea and Australia 50,000 years ago.

The book’s 63 pages of the four opening chapters is one of the best layperson’s histories of not just the artistic, cultural and tribal traditions but also the archaeology, languages, customs, migration routes, foreign contacts, economies and exchange systems of the people of the Lesser Sundas. In so doing, we get to see how the region’s great variety of peoples shares a cultural unity and long intertwined history.

Though it’s not usually the preserve of art books, there’s also abundant advice on how to evaluate, categorize and trace the provenance of an article. Generally speaking, the cruder an object looks, the further east it comes from. Absence of pinholes on a textile indicates that another cloth was once sewn on to that part of the fabric; an unfinished fringe means the cloth hasn’t been corded yet. The sheen on objects determines where they were hung or handled extensively, whether it was stored and what its ritualistic function was. The amount of wear and crystallization indicate the age of an object, while erosion shows if the object was stuck into the ground or into a pile of stones. Mud stains do not necessarily mean that the piece was not properly cared. Mud was actually the most archaic form of natural dye.

The majority of the book’s 146 captivating objects have come from the author’s own collection assembled over the last three decades of the 20th C., representing some of the last traditional artifacts created in the Lesser Sundas. The bulk have been sourced from a great triangle centering on the Sawu Sea, including the Flores and Solor archipelagos and the main islands of Sumbawa, Sumba, Sawu and Roti. Because of limits of space, the conscientiously selected specimens are only a sampling of the artistic output of the area.

Paging through the hundreds of pages of these marvelous and dignified objects, it is sad to think of all the bare heads, necks, arms, wrists, ankles and fingers now bereft of ornament; all the walls, doors and windows missing their splendid carved surfaces and all the household yards empty of totems, statuary and memorial stones. How much more striking would these objects be if seen in their natural settings?

The lengthy annotated bibliography is amazing! Author A. F. Granucci has spent 30 years steeped in ethnic art, hanging out with prehistorians, art historians, museum curators, antique collectors, art writers and photographers. Admittedly not an expert himself, for details concerning identification and places of origins he has relied on publications by scholars and specialists on the anthropology and archaeology of Austronesia. Not just a bare listing of sources, his assiduously assembled reading list – annotated by astute, learned and lively commentary and anecdotes – is meant as a reference for those who want to delve deeper into a rarefied and enthralling field of study.

Unexpectedly, there’s no glossary of indigenous terms. Names of objects are defined the first time they appear in the text, but not thereafter. If you want to know the meaning of a term or if you’re interested in just bracelets, sarongs or shell artifacts, just look up the word or any general category in the comprehensive index where translations, images, island of origin, cultural and historic background and any other relevant information is provided. I wished that the page numbers were in bolder type so they would be easier to read.

The Art of the Lesser Sundas fills the gap in the scarcity of publications on these remote and scattered islands, inspiring a reconsideration of the rightful place the extraordinary art of the traditional cultures of the Lesser Sunda region holds within the larger universe of Southeast Asia and Oceanic art.

The Art of the Lesser Sundas by A. F. Granucci, Editions Didier Millet 2005, ISBN 978-981-415-5540, hardcover, 212 pages, dimensions 24.5 cm X 29 cm. Available for Rp650,000 at Periplus ( and Ganesha bookstores (

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