Visiting “East of the Wallace Line: Monumental Art from Indonesia and New Guinea” requires something of a trek and directional know-how (in my case, supplied by a friendly Yale University Art Gallery security guard). The exhibit is tucked away into a little fourth-floor gallery; it feels almost like an intrusion to stumble into the intimate, teal-colored room after strolling through breezy white hallways and riding an elevator far too large for one person. Once inside, I am overwhelmed by over 120 objects from the 17th to 19th centuries, ranging from textile to brass to wood so old it no longer looks like wood; they are scattered along the walls and clustered in islands in the open space of the room, much like the scattered East Indies islands depicted in the map at the entrance to the exhibit.
“East of the Wallace Line” takes its title from the 19th-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who identified a divide — the Wallace Line — between the flora and fauna on two groups of islands in the East Indies. Although Wallace was concerned primarily with the natural world, the exhibit uses his ecological divide as a framework for presenting the artistic culture of peoples who lived in eastern Indonesia and western New Guinea. I almost wish there were examples of art from the other side, a counterpart exhibit called “West of the Wallace Line,” if only to serve as a point of comparison.
As I shuffle through the gallery, however, it nevertheless becomes apparent that there are plenty of contrasts to work with here — that we have, after all, an exhibit of distinctions within otherwise indistinguishable pairs, and networks of incongruities that perhaps aren’t so incongruous after all. There is, of course, Wallace himself, who independently developed the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin, though it is Darwin whom we know better. There’s the underlying consciousness of the ecological mechanisms that preoccupied both men, of the diversity of traits individually propagated by the same core laws of evolution — and there is the distinction (and comparison) to be made between ecological and cultural diversity. There are, for the exhibit’s titular emphasis on monumental art — and its examples are captivating, don’t get me wrong — an awful lot of tiny and seemingly mundane (but no less aesthetic, and, in many cases, spiritually resonant) everyday objects ranging from combs to spoons to a woman’s hat. And then there is the exhibit’s assertion that the hodgepodge of cultures represented are somehow united by a single “shared sense of iconography and design.”
The exhibit does a subtle job of illustrating that our initial perception of these peoples as both physically and culturally isolated is not entirely accurate. It’s true that in the ecological world, physical separation gives rise to divergence, and this would have been the mental framework of Westerners like Wallace who arrived in the region believing it to be cut off from the outside world. We are presented, however, with healthy evidence of trade and exchange. For example, in one corner of the room hangs a particularly vivid shroud, used among the Rongkong Toraja exclusively for wrapping the dead. But when traded off to neighboring peoples, such shrouds took on ceremonial and decorative uses. This is how we start to see a justification for the wide range of objects on display and the coherence in design among different artistic traditions, how huge festival banners of Sulawesi can share the same sense of intricacy as canoe prow ornaments from Cenderawasih Bay. In a pleasantly surprising intersection of ecology and culture, one of the exhibit placards informs the viewer of how bird-of-paradise feathers from the region became a highly sought-after luxury in places as far away as Vietnam. The arrangement of objects themselves about the room is almost haphazard, and the island clusters into which they are seemingly compartmentalized turn out to represent mixes of cultures — masks from Timor are placed near ancestor figures from Flores, curation defined more by aesthetic relationships than by geography. Such adaptations were not only material; we learn also of tribes’ conversions to Christianity and Islam, tribes that still exist to this day. So here we come to perhaps the biggest paradox of all: the relationship between cultural exchange on one hand, and survival or the preservation of identity on the other.
A friend who accompanied me comments on the pristine condition of the objects on display, despite their age. In the same way, “East of the Wallace Line” reminds us of how cultures and communities can endure after centuries of history; while these objects left behind are now considered relics, their creators shouldn’t be. Before I arrived at “East of the Wallace Line,” I had to walk through another gallery in which a different exhibit was in the process of being taken down; I passed by a workman who was scraping painted letters off the wall into a garbage bag. For me, it was in this context, in a museum and a world in flux, that these objects of wood and textile and age and gravitas took on a strange sense of permanence.