Lombok is the first island east of Bali, but it is quite different. The climate is drier and the channel between the two islands is deep. This puts Lombok on the east side of the Wallace Line which means that some of the plants and wildlife are related to those in Australia rather than Asia. Many of the native Sasak people practice Wektu Telu which combines aspects of Islam with Hindu-Buddhist beliefs. Other Sasaks practice Wektu Lima which is closer to orthodox Islam.
Lombok was colonized, first by the Balinese and then by the Dutch. Many Balinese families still live on the island and they do some of the carving of the beautiful, curvilinear figures that decorate the baskets. Their family compounds are marked by the traditional Balinese Hindu shrines, daily offerings and the complex Balinese ceremonial cycle.
There were few cupboards or cabinets in typical Lombok village houses, so baskets of all types and sizes were created and are still used for clothing and trinkets. During a wedding, Lontar Boxes are used to transport dowry textiles while ceremonial baskets are used to present cakes. Some baskets are used for everyday utilitarian purposes such as coffee picking. Baskets are very strong, light and portable. The necessary materials are available from the fields and the forest. They can be worked on whenever there is a bit of spare time.
Rattan (rotan), a wild palm vine, is often used for its durability. The tough, inner core of the vine is coiled to form the main superstructure of a basket, while the outer skin is peeled off in fine, flexible strips for weaving the covering coils of the basket together. Other baskets, for example the nested, stacking ones, are constructed of stained split bamboo and bark. Sometimes trade items such as beads and coins or some shell inlay are added.
We bought our first Lombok baskets in the big city market at Cakranegara. The baskets there are inexpensive, but the quality is uneven. These baskets often get exported overseas, but they don't do justice to the true skill of Lombok basket makers. As we got to know the island and people better, we found better quality baskets. One of the first baskets I bought was a small, coiled rattan basket with an old Chinese coin attached to the lid. The Chinese and the Indonesians have traded for centuries and there are bits of Chinese culture all over the archipelago.
Baskets made for sale in the island markets are usually produced by extended family workshops. One family gathers, prepares and dyes the fibers. Another constructs the baskets. Still another does the carving of the decorative figures in wood. We sometimes sit under the shade of a thatch roof and talk to the men as they cut the end of the rattan to a sharp point, use a small awl to pierce the previous coil of the basket, then push the fiber through and draw it around the coil again and again. This process requires tough fingertips.
Many of the carved figures are the same as the ones found on the traditional betel nut crushers. There are birds like the rooster which symbolizes new life each dawn. All kinds of animals, fish and reptiles like the lizard which symbolizes agricultural fertility. Some figures are scenes from folktales with ribald humor and sexual connotations and combinations.
The Lombok carvers have a distinctive sinuous style. Often one animal merges into another or contains features from another creature. Some of the human figures crouch like frogs. Monkeys play gongs and drums. We watched one Balinese carver rough out an elephant. He held the raw block of wood with his feet. With his chisel and mallet, he carved a recognizable shape in only half an hour. Lathe-turned and hand-carved wooden bowls are also produced.
These bowls are also used as offering bowls during ceremonies. Some have lids and some don't. The foot is often much higher and the whole effect is more pedestal-like. They may be plain, painted or inlaid with geometric shell designs. Large, flat platters in these same styles are also produced.
This beautiful, but labor intensive, inlaid shell technique is also used on larger pieces such as wooden chests (peti kecils) and even on doors. Each tiny area of the inlay is chipped into the wood surface and then individually filled with a matching piece of shell. The designs are usually geometric or floral, but we have also bought a few chests with large scale motifs of fish and boats.
The best Lombok baskets are in demand by Indonesian collectors in fine shops in Bali and Jakarta, where their quality is appreciated. Sizes range from single, small rounded baskets with lids to sets of larger, nested ones that can be stacked for display. Some of the workshops and suppliers on Lombok are trying to maintain and improve the quality of this traditional handicraft which can reach the level of fine sculpture in the wood carved figures. Lombok baskets are exceptional examples of an artistic and utilitarian tradition combined in an evolving, dynamic craft.
Baskets and other fiber products such as hats, are made all over Indonesia. Also see the article on Lontar Boxes in our Guide to Artifacts.
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/