By LEE LAWRENCE
New Haven, Conn.
Amid swirls of interlocking loops carved into an entryway, the silhouettes of two horses emerge while, over to one side, blocky ancestral figures stare out, knees raised chest-level, arms crossed. Elsewhere, a large ceremonial cloth sizzles with intense geometrics while smaller ones sport elephants and shadow puppets. Here, a ball of tusks on a knife hilt exudes menace; there, two creatures carved in ivory—part dragon, part dog, part lion—are so intertwined it is impossible to tell whether the first is ingesting the second or bringing it forth. And on the rim of a vessel a little female sits, impishly pinching her nipples. "This," says my guide, "is a scoop for rice." Her eyes sparkle as she waits for the image of rice cascading between the woman's breasts to take hold. "These people have a sense of humor," she adds, laughing.
We are in the Yale University Art Gallery's new department of Indo-Pacific art, opened in December as part of a $135-million renovation and expansion. The initial installation, showcasing works from Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and coastal regions of mainland Southeast Asia, is a rare treat. Only a handful of U.S. museums devote space to the cultures of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—and they often scatter the works among different departments. Here they are kept together, inviting us to see connections and explore diverse cultural expressions, from refined court arts to the spiritually charged talismans of headhunters.
The genesis of the gallery dates back about a dozen years, when the museum was embarking on its expansion and Thomas Jaffe, Yale '71, was looking for a home for his tribal-art collection. These are mostly ritual objects, architectural carvings and representations of ancestors made for veneration, often featuring the clean, simple lines we now readily associate with modernism, another of Mr. Jaffe's interests. Keen to have these works inspire new scholarship, Mr. Jaffe decided to fund an Indo-Pacific gallery for his alma mater, endow a curatorship and promise a collection that now totals 700 pieces.
As he and Yale were ironing out details, Mr. Jaffe reconnected with art historians Robert Holmgren and Anita Spertus, who had built a highly regarded collection of Indonesian textiles. "It was always my dream that our collections could be under the same roof," Mr. Jaffe says by phone. Knowing Mr. Holmgren and Ms. Spertus had already sold half these holdings to the National Gallery of Australia, "one thing led to another" and he purchased the rest, adding some 500 textiles to his promised gift.
Mr. Holmgren and Ms. Spertus have since helped coordinate Mr. Jaffe's purchase of 200 additional textiles for the new gallery. Along the way, they also introduced the museum's director, Jock Reynolds, to Canadian collectors Hunter and Valerie Thompson, who in 2007 donated about 500 Javanese gold sculptures and ornaments. These small, highly detailed pieces are a far cry from the larger, more abstract forms Mr. Jaffe often favors, and so much the better. It means there is more to learn, says Mr. Jaffe, for each object is "its maker's universe, alive, captured for a moment in a plastic art form."
Guiding me through these universes is Ruth Barnes, curator of the collection. If her accent reflects her German origins and decades living in England, her tone expresses undiluted enthusiasm for the objects she gets to study and elucidate to students, faculty and the public at large. Hired away from the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, where she was textile curator in its department of Eastern art, Ms. Barnes has researched how textile techniques and designs spread, often disseminated by merchants plying the sea-lanes.
Early on in our tour, she pauses before a cloth from Sulawesi. It is, she says, "one of our earliest textiles, radiocarbon dated to the 16th century," and its bands of patterns are "a very, very early way of decorating textiles in Indonesia. Now," she adds, trotting over to some of the Thompson gifts, "let me take you to the gold." Eager to illustrate how "court and village culture are very much dependent on each other," she singles out a ninth-century Buddhist figure. Sure enough, its skirt features the same horizontal markings.
Ms. Barnes makes a second point: "With the late 10th-11th century," she explains, "there is a shift." Striped patterns don't disappear—as the Sulawesi cloth attests—but weavers branch out. Ms. Barnes now leads me to a large, red textile from the tip of Sumatra. "You begin also to get continuous patterns that come from printed Indian textiles," she says, indicating lozenge-shaped floral motifs. This is not a case of memes spreading like viruses; this is about individual Indonesian women appraising imported materials and choosing what to incorporate, reject or adapt.
Ms. Barnes first delved into textiles when she followed her anthropologist husband to East Flores (roughly between Bali and East Timor). "Our first house was a little bamboo hut halfway up an extinct volcano," she recalls, "and I completely fell in love with Indonesia." Since textiles were the main local art form, she decided to use them as her gateway into the area's culture. Soon she was learning the art of ikat—in which women dye a pattern onto the yarn before weaving it—and discovering the symbolic function of both the design and the ikat process itself. A cloth typically given to brides offers a straightforward example. "It has supplementary wefts," she explains, "to denote abundance and fertility."
The tribal objects are similarly freighted, and Ms. Barnes is particularly intrigued by the many instances in which figures emerge from one another. A medicine horn from Batak (in Sumatra, Indonesia), for example, shows a human figure inside a creature's mouth. It is aesthetically stunning, but is its message one of menace or protection?
If I cherish Ms. Barnes's expert guidance on connections and meanings, it is her reassuring companionship I crave when confronting more visceral works. The adorned skull of a tiny Borneo primate with huge eyes "looks so sweetly cuddly," as she says, yet its mouth reveals razor-sharp teeth. A wood baby carrier, also from Borneo, is decorated with eyes that jut out like pointed studs. "Spirits can be both benevolent and bad for you," she whispers. Hence the need for talismanic protection.
By contrast, the primary attitude of ancestors "is one of benevolence toward the living." Indeed, the wooden ancestor figures—some seated, others standing, yet others looking out through cowrie-shell eyes—seem welcoming. But, Ms. Barnes cautions, "they like to be remembered," which entails, among other things, honoring their effigies with offerings. Otherwise things can go terribly wrong—as they seem to have for the man whose head now sits in a case. It is a headhunter's trophy or possibly, Ms. Barnes says, an ancestral relic. What we see is a skull that a 19th-century Borneo tribesman has reworked, re-creating facial features with resin while leaving the bone at the back of the head exposed. It, too, is embellished, but not so much that we forget this is a skull. Ms. Barnes and I agree that it throws us off balance by simultaneously evoking life and death.
"But it would not have been fearsome," Ms. Barnes reassures me. As long as I remember him, right? Good, since I'm not likely to soon forget this or anything else in this astounding collection.
Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared January 31, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Eastern Expansion.