The Mentawai Islands

A few decades ago, the Mentawai tribe were outlawed by the Indonesian government and forced to find protection among the trees of the Siebrut rainforest. Their heritage, their traditions, their very way of life was nearly lost forever but the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF) and local communities supported their effort to revive the culture to ensure it will survive.

Kobra x Pangek


Several hours squatting in a canoe and several more hiking into the heart of an island off Western Sumatra landed us at the home of a local shaman, Pangek. While walking around his uma, his warm welcome was transformed to an uneasy stare as the translator explained our plans for a self-portrait. The tension was only lifted when we shared shots of Kobra’s most iconic murals. All of a sudden, a collaboration seemed to move from a far-fetched plan to a possibility. During the next few days, Pangek’s curiosity grew as he questioned our motives and shared stories of life as a Sikerei over servings of sago. We woke one morning to watch Pangek prepare his traditional headwear which seemed to indicate he supported the plans. Without further warning he sat at the steps of his home and signaled he was ready to be photographed for the painting. After this he was unwavering in the process and simply grabbed his blade and shuffled towards the forest to source materials. He gathered branches of various styles before selecting string, feathers and the tail of a rat from his home while weaving in and out of chickens who share his space. He had everything he needed to make the ink normally reserved for their traditional tattoos and brushes typically used to spread poison on arrows. The stage was set, it was time to begin.

 Working with the canvas on the ground allowed him to approach the portrait from all angles, simply spinning it while switching from feather to brush to finger and back again. Most would focus on the absence of any experience and demand direction but Pangek never embraced this as an excuse or looked for any approval. Over several hours, he seemed to prefer to paint from feeling and only paused to switch out an old smoke for a fresh one. For every completed outline, came dozens of nods of self-endorsement as the features started to resemble his own. Forcefully rubbing his finger around the bottom of the coconut to scrape the remaining particles of home-made paint, he scanned the self-portrait and moved from section to section to shade it further. Since the beginning of the process, Pangek seemed to conceal a smile to concentrate on the task at hand, but it couldn’t be suppressed once he was asked to put his name on the finished piece. He stood as the definition of pride as he stared at the painting that would be sent to Saõ Paulo so Kobra could make his mark.

Retna x Amanboroi

When Amanboroi emerged from his uma and took a long-sustained look at us, we knew we were in for an interesting experience. Here stood a Sikerei with a presence that felt as significant as his heritage.


Not long after his appearance, Amanboroi walked across his plot and into a stretch of what seemed to be thick untouched trees. As we watched him fade between the forest he turned and gestured for us to join. We stumbled behind as he fluidly made his way over fallen trees, under broken branches and through small streams. We were forced to focus on our footing while Amanboroi searched for the skin of a Baiko tree. Before we were stable, he shot up a hill as he spotted what we were after.

While he stripped the bark of the Baiko, we considered the possibility that this ancient custom may soon be forgotten without the work of the IEF. This thought didn’t last long as Amanboroi knocked it from our consciousness by sharply beating the bark while simultaneously soaking it in a stream. He rolled up the results of his labor and signaled we should return to his uma so it could dry under the Indonesian sun.


The canvas was now ready for Retna’s portion of the collaboration. But this canvas is not a canvas at all. It is a significant part of a Sikerei’s life as it is the same material as their only item of clothing.


‘If this project is genuine in supporting the revitalisation of our Mentawai culture and brings strength back to our people, we give you our deepest thanks and appreciation’ Mentawai elder, Sikerei.

‘Support raised via this project will enable the Mentawai foundation team to overcome obstacles including lack of funding to build cultural learning studios, purchase teaching and learning materials, empower additional Mentawai cultural teachers, and develop capacity for the students to take advantage of these skills and knowledge as a source for economic and program sustainability.’ IEF President, Rob Henry

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