This exhibition offered some answers to this question, and the many answers included not just the contents of the container, but the artistry and know how in the making of it.

For know how consider that an earthenware vessel will keep water cool, but a brass one will not. The water slowly evaporates through the porous surface to cool the liquid inside. An earthenware kendi enables the holder to drink from the spout without lips touching it.  In some places a kendi is placed outside a house for the use of thirsty passers-by.

In this exhibition there were kendi from Palembang in South Sumatra; from the island of Alor in Nusa Tenggara Timur; from Plered in West Java; from Gayo, Aceh Province, North Sumatra.

Earthenware water vessels also take other forms: displayed here was a small ceremonial pot from Atoni in the Soe district of Timor, decorated with raised human and lizard figures outlined in red clay and lime.  Another vessel, from Lombok, was shaped as a human head.

Apart from shaping forms on to the earthenware, the potter can beat a pattern on the outer surface using a carved wooden paddle, where the reverse image is pressed into the clay.  Displayed in the exhibition was such a bowl from Atoni, in the Boti district of Central West Timor.  There was a terracotta water pot from Bela, in Timor. The potter can also make incised decorations as on the small lidded pot from Sawu Island, Nusa Tenggara Timur; on a black water pot with curvilinear and geometric patterns from Barambong near Makassar in South Sulawesi; and on the painted cooking pot from Rambutan in the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra..

Water can also be boiled in earthenware, as in the kocor kettle from Lombok.  The handle of this vessel is decorated with a mythical snake.

Know how does not stand still though.  The tradition pottery village of Pejatan in South Bali has expanded its range from earthenware to include glazed stoneware, fired at high temperatures.  Here exhibited was a celadon-glazed sugar bowl with a lid surmounted by a naga, the mythic snake-dragon.

Important items, needing safekeeping, may well need a container.  Clay money boxes can deter the saver from a surreptitious or premature dip into the savings, because the ‘box’ has to be smashed to get to the money.  Potters mould fancifully shaped ‘boxes’ in forms such as a hen, or a cat, or a comical character from the Hindu-Javanese epics and shadow puppet plays.  One exhibited here was of male and female figurines representing Dewi Sri the rice goddess and her consort Sadono.  Described together as Loro Blonyo these are traditionally carved in wood and placed inside a house to grant fertility and prosperity to the Javanese household.  These pottery figures, from Kasongan in Central Java, demonstrate how money has become central for some in defining the prosperity of a household,

Betel and all its accoutrements are also important requisites in demonstrating a person’s hospitality.  A rounded box with lacquered decoration could well impress as could a rectangular lacquered wooden box.  Both these exhibits are from Palembang, South Sumatra, where the influence of the long standing and prosperous Chinese community is evident in local decorative arts.

Ceremonial containers may also be made from palm leaf.  One from Atoni in Timor is embellished with four woven cocks.  The woven hook pattern on the outer sides of the box recalls those of the Bronze Age.  The cocks, symbols of the upper spiritual realm of sun, heat and masculinity mediate the relationship between the gods and human beings.  This container would be used to offer betel at occasions such as a marriage negotiation or the birth of a child.

Another betel sirih basket for ceremonial purposes, from Angkola or Mandailing in the Batak region of North Sumatra is beaded and decorated with pompoms, and backgrounded under the beads with golden tin foil.

Another from Atoni, Timor is decorated with human figures.  These figures must be important as rather than seated on the ground they are positioned seated, backs erect on straight backed chairs.

The beaded palm leaf purse for storing betel ingredients or for jewellery comes from the Batak region of North Sumatra. Its colours reflect Batak cosmology: red for the upper masculine world of ancestors and spirits and black or indigo for the lower world of femininity and creativity and white for human social reality.  The colours also reflect ways of thinking about the relationships between the bride’s and the groom’s families and married couples.

Cloth betel bags lend themselves to further decoration.  A cylindrical one here from Timor, used to hold slaked lime for mixing with the betel nut is decorated with glass seed beads, metal, shells, coconut shell, animal teeth and wood.  Its shoulder straps are decorated with cowrie shells.  Another betel bag, from Timor, is fringed with white beads and in addition decorated with wood and coins.

Still others are made of bamboo, bone or horn.  The very choice of material indicates something about the sustainable nature of production and about the producer’s knowledge of different properties: where to find them; how they react to such manufacture; the extent of their durability.

Production of the container is also a way for the artistic to show off more skill as in the lime container from Timor where glass seed beads, wood, coconut shell and coins have been joined by a sumptuously decorative hanger.  A tapestry woven cotton bag for betel ingredients, from Atoni, Timor, is embellished with beads and Dutch colonial and Indonesian coins, and patterned with hooks in an intricate and time consuming process.  A second woven bag from Atoni demonstrates the disciplined precision of the weaver to create a minutely patterned weft in perfect alignment.  The little tobacco container from Kalimantan, with tiny glass seed beads tightly strung across a lontar backing displays exquisite sense of design as well as finely controlled technical skill.

The hospitable host may feel obliged to offer tobacco.  An engraved silver case for long straw cigarettes comes from Bali; another silver tobacco box with engraved domed lid and fruit shaped line box from Sumatra.  Also exhibited were a pair of silver boxes, klopok, for tobacco and gambir resin used in betel chews.  Each of these boxes, from Bali, has a lotus motif embossed on one side and a local flower karang kakotosen on the other.  Brass can also enable patterning.  A brass box from Sungai Para, Minangkabau is cast with a floral leafy pattern.

Just as the pottery village of Pejaten in Bali has extended its range from earthenware to glazed stoneware, the silversmith village of Kota Gede, linked to the Jogyakarta Court has adapted its skills to make modern fruit baskets, finger bowls and cake stands, initially for wealthy Dutch, now Javanese families.

A versatile medium for containers with no perquisite for wealth is plant material.  Dyed pandanus leaf or anau leaf and leaf spines make excellent fish bait or cigarette boxes.  Here were exhibited two from Lombok.  They can be decorated, as in the dyed palm leaf purse from West Sumatra, a palm leaf box with a lotus decorated lid from Bali, other dyed palm leaf purses from Central Timor.  The palm leaf may be adorned with beads as is the one from the Batak region of North Sumatra.

Lontar palm can also be used as in the woven lontar bag from the Batak, with glass seed beads, textiles and bronze metal attached.  Lontar lends itself to inscription or carving.  Here exhibited was a series of lontar palm strips which tell a story of the goddess of learning, science and literature Saraswati. The incisions are covered with ash which becomes embedded in them, making the created images more visible.  A traditional clothing storage box, a family heirloom over 100 years old from the village of Geguti near Mataram in Lombok, is coloured and stitched with lontar palm leaves.  It is sewn with shells for additional decoration.

Lontar products can show off the skills of a Sumba plaiter.  If the leaves are stripped narrowly and evenly they can be used to plait refined and elegant baskets as shown in those exhibited from the Kambera and Wanukaka regions.  For more robust containers the plaiter might use coconut palm as for the buala kaba woven for prestige cloths.  The joy of this process is that the container can be woven to the size of its contents – custom made.  The women of these regions in Sumba use panadanus for large sturdy rice containers. A woven bin may be two metres in diameter and three metres tall.  To make these bins, groups of women work together, singing as they go.

In this area of Sumba hospitality requires that all guests be presented with a ‘plate’ of betel nuts, sirih leaves and lime powder.  The status of the guest is obvious in the quality of the plate on which these are presented.

Plaiting can take ingenious forms.  Here exhibited is a box within a box with a tight fitting lid that can be removed to reveal a tray where betel nut slices are stored.  The tray itself is the top of an inner box.  That in turn can be lifted out to expose several secret drawers.  The entire construction is plaited palm leaf.

Rattan is a sturdy material for baskets.  The rattan splayed into strips forms an excellent plait.  One exhibit from the Middle Mahakam in East Kalimantan would be used for rice.  A beaded rattan and wooden baby carrier from the same area would be worn like a backpack.  The exhibit is embellished with bone, bead and tusk ornaments.  The beads are said to be able to speak to the mother and warn her of extraterrestrial spirits that might want to attack her infant. At the centre of the beaded panel is a spirit face showing that the owner of the carrier was an aristocrat, the face being an emblem of aristocracy.

Rattan and silver metal have been combined in one Alor basket, with applied repousse silver decoration.  Baskets such as this one are rare and may have been used to hold valuable textiles.

Rattan can be painted as is the rice basket from Madura, East Java.

Rattan and bark have been combined in an interesting adaption to create modern handbags from Kalimantan.  These are further examples of the evolution of technical and artistic know how.

Bamboo is a supremely strong medium.  The exhibited ponjol container with lid, from Lombok, sits on a rigid bamboo base, formed into strips to allow air to circulate.

Bamboo has been combined with wood to create a pair of bird cages from Lombok.

Wood provides a wonderful medium for carving.  A jewellery box exhibited is carved with images of a parrot eating fruit, flowers and leaves.  The box is from Bali; the parrot associated with love in Hindu mythology.  A carved wooden serving bowl from Rantepao in the Toraja region of South Sulawesi is decorated with a cock’s head for a handle.  A wooden case for keeping cockfighting spurs has external panels carved of images of hunting dogs and internal panels with antlered stags.  The stags would be regarded as hunting trophies where the case originated in Lombok.  The stags were also symbols of nobility.

The use of wood offers possibilities for containers larger than is possible with many other materials.  One exhibit was a large carved human figure hazi nuwu from the Batu Islands.  Bamboo tubes lashed with twine to the front of the figure are intended to hold sticks, famaso, as a place for the spirit of the dead to enter the image.  The hazi nuwu thus acts as a mediator between the living and the deceased.

Much smaller were the human figure medicine containers of bone and wood, from Toraja, Central Sulawesi.

Another holder for traditional medicines said to come from the Mahakam area of the Kutai Sultanate in Kalimantan has a holder that opens in two parts.  The horn of a water buffalo forms the container itself with the stopper having a solid wooden carved animal-like head.

Shaman’s equipment needs a container.  One round Iban bark exhibit, lupung manang, from West Kalimantan has a pair of human figures, pentik, which guard the contents of the box.  The box has a carved wooden top and comes with ceramic pieces and animal teeth attached to the box and a plastic handle.

Another, a salipa from Siberut Island, Mentawai, is formed from a sago palm husk.  It is embellished with trade beads, bronze metal, and textile.  It holds items for the shaman to perform certain rituals: here a red, black and white sabu or dance skirt, a headband,a sorot, and a raffia hair ornament,a jara-jara.

A third is a woven basket of rattan and bamboo, from the Benuaq, East Kalimantan.  It is decorated with glass trade beads, feathers, and horn.  It contains a shaman’s necklace, granji, with apotropaic jurotn figures.

Artistry and know how can sometimes collide.  Table ornaments bought in Jakarta, but said to follow the idiom of the Batak, North Sumatra are exhibited to demonstrate this point.  Buffalo horns traditionally held for the Batak small things such as powder for firearms, tobacco or poison.  The stopper would be carved from wood.  Jakartan copies in metal have taken the broad principle but turned the Batak lion-dragon into a horse, a row of kneeling figures on its back have replaced the lion’s mane and horse’s hooves its paws.

This exhibition was officially opened on 2 February 2014, accompanied by music delightfully played and sung by members of the Indonesian Creative Community of Australia.

The description of items given here was taken by Marguerite Heppell from the information provided by the owners of the objects lent for the exhibition.  It does not claim to be definitive.