Small miracles: In praise of tiny tribal art.

Correction: My friend Torsten Grimme, who has an impressive knowledge of Indonesian art, informs me that mamuli ear decorations are  from the island of Sumba, not Sumatra as I originally wrote,  and that they are traditionally  made by metal smiths from the tiny island of Savu who have settled there for generations.

What is it that attracts us to small and well made pieces? Is it the difficulty if working at such a small size? The aesthetics  of the pieces themselves? Or do they achieve a special added charm of their own just by being small?

Sometimes the unexpectedness of the material itself adds to the surprise. We’re used to the tiny perfection of ivory or wooden Japanese netsuke for example, but how about a miniature orchestra made entirely out of bamboo nodes and stalks?

Each player this tiny Japanese orchestra, plays a traditional instrument and most of the figures are under 5 cm /2 inches tall, while the leader is around 7 cm / 3 inches tall including his standard.

This  piece celebrates the annual Awa Odori festival, a 16th century (Edo Period) festival dedicated to having a good time. It takes place each year in Tokushima Prefecture, where thousands throng the streets to drink, sing and dance. According to legend, it originated one night in the late 1580s as a street party held to celebrate a new castle built for the lord of the Awa Domain.

This vintage set of is housed in its own wood and perspex case, with the words of the traditional Awa Yoshikono drinking song associated with Awa Odori written in Japanese kanji script as a back drop. The words are: “The dancers are fools; the watchers are fools; both are fools alike – so why not dance?”

A mamuli bridal and fertility symbol from Sumatra Indonesia with a monkey on either side, 3 ¼ inches / 8 cm tall

Indonesian craftsmen work exceptionally well in miniature, especially when working with metal. Mamuli are heart shaped amulets from the island of Sumba which are usually made of gilded sheet brass. The shape represents the female sex and fertility and they are frequently presented to brides and worn by married women, often forming part of the trousseau and wedding dress. They come in any size from about an inch (2.4 cm) upwards and are worn as pendants, earrings, and headdress ornaments. Old earrings can often be identified because the metal is padded with a winding of cotton thread so they are more comfortable to wear.

This mamuli is quite a large one, being 3 ¼ inches / 8 cm tall, and it has a little monkey balanced on either side of the base. The monkey’s bodies and their wire arms move and this leads me to believe that it is an earring, since the movement of the wearer’s head would have made the monkeys move too.

A large display mamuili featuring a miniature wedding procession on either side of the base.

And here is an even more ambitions mamuli. At 7 ½ x 6 inches / 19 x 15 cm tall, it is certainly too big to be called tiny, but I have included it as it has an entire wedding procession repeated on both sides of its base. In front we a have the groom riding on a horse with one attendant holding a  parasol over his head while another runs beside him  on his other side. Behind him, two more attendants carry the bride, presumably sitting in some sort of palanquin.

The miniature horses and their riders are only 2 ½ inches / 6 cm tall.

The horses and their riders, which are the tallest elements in this complex sculpture, are only 2 ½ inches / 6 cm tall and of course the groom with his turban and the bride with her head dress are taller than the servants to show their status.

This mamuli is far to large to be worn as an earring or even as a pedant, so I am assuming that it was pinned to  a bride’s headdress or displayed at the wedding reception.  I have included a close up of the wedding procession on either side of the base so you can get a better idea of the scale and the amount of detail in this sculpture.

Tuareg brass amulet box from Ethiopia, 4.5 x 3.5 cm / 2 x 1 ¾ inches excluding chains.

My next small treasure is a Tuareg brass amulet box from Ethiopia. These engraved and hinged brass boxes were carried on the person – on the belt or around the neck and contained protective verses of the Koran. The example has an ornate abstract pattern of flowers and leaves on the front and back and a fringe of fine chains at the bottom. There were once small hand-beaten coins hanging from each chain, but only three survive.

There are some solder marks on the hinged lit indicating that another loop was probably attached, perhaps to thread the cord through and keep the lid secure. The size of box excluding the chains is 4.5 x 3.5 cm / 2 x 1 ¾ inches.

 I purchased this  piece at auction in Sydney and the auctioneer informed me that the vendor was an Australian who had inherited them from a German friend who had been a diplomat and had collected them in the1950s while stationed in Ethiopia.


Buffalo horn personal amulet mask, west Timor, 1.5 x 2 inches / 3 x 5 cm.

Very small masks are usually much more than just jewellery, since they often served as  important social signifiers or amulets. This small maskette carved in buffalo horn comes from East Timor (Indonesia) where it was used as a protective charm which was carried close to the person at all times.  Among Timorese tribesmen this usually meant that it was tucked into the ikat pinggang or belt sash, hand-woven on a simple backstrap loom and used to secure the cotton blankets that the Timorese men wear as a main garment around the waist. Size 1.5 x 2 inches / 3 x 5 cm.

This old cast brass trophy head pectoral traditionally represents a head taken in battle among the Naga tribe who live on the Indian-Burmese border and it was was worn as an everyday breast ornament by the successful head hunter, presumably long after the display of human skulls was forbidden by the British and later Indian and Burmese authorities.  The casting itself is typical of these ornaments. The village design is fairly rough, but the surface has been rubbed smooth and there is a patina of age, tarnish and dirt. It could have been cast any from 1900 onwards.


Naga head hunter’s brass trophy head pendant , size 6 x 4.5 cm / 2 ½ x 1 ¾ inches

Please note: Tribal art of a certain age has usually taken a few knocks and the left ear has been lost and replaced with a bent brass nail a long time ago.  Size 6 x 4.5 cm / 2 ½ x 1 ¾ inches.

I could go on talking about beautiful small things forever – I haven’t even mentioned Ashanti gold weights or Zulu wire-embroidered snuff gourds yet. On the other hand, all the small artworks photographed in this post are for sale in my on line tribal gallery,, so if you like one, you could own it!

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