Throughout my anthropological career I have been interested in the meaning of "matriarchy." From the theoretical point of view, I was curious about the nature of social structure, gender meanings, aesthetics and worldview in so-called matriarchal societies. Questions about the quality of interpersonal interaction also intrigued me. Would there be more or less interpersonal violence, more or less domestic and child abuse in a matriarchal society? There is also the question of "female rule" that accompanies discussions of matriarchies. How would political power be expressed where women ruled? Would women be more comfortable and social life more peaceable? Where do men fit in such a society, and how do the sexes interact?
Such questions inspired me to begin anthropological
fieldwork among the Minangkabau who refer to their social
system by the term "matriarchate." The fourth largest of
Indonesia's many ethnic groups, the Minangkabau are known to
anthropologists as the largest and most modern matrilineal
society in the world today. They constitute three percent of
the entire Indonesian population and one-quarter of the
Sumatran population. The province of West Sumatra, the
traditional homeland of the Minangkabau people, is one of
eight provinces in Sumatra. The Minangkabau speak a dialect
of Malay which formed the basis for the national language of
Indonesia and which some linguists argue is the parent
language of modern Malay. The Minangkabau are famous in
Indonesia and Malaysia for their matrilineal social system
in which all ancestral property is inherited by women.
Almost every year, from l981-l997, I spent summers and sabbaticals in West Sumatra. The result of this work was displayed in an exhibition of ethnographic photographs at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, September 13, l997 to December 7, 1997. This exhibition was displayed at the Museum Negeri Adityawarman in Padang, West Sumatra in October l998.
Many of the photographs were published in Expedition (The Magazine of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) Vol. 39, No. 3, l997 in a photo essay entitled: "Eggi's Village, Reconsidering the Meaning of Matriarchy."
My goal in the exhibition and photo essay is to convey through the eyes of a cultural anthropologist daily life as I experienced it living in one Minangkabau village where I developed a relationship of unusual intimacy with one family representing four generations of women. These women chose to name one of their children after me. Born on my birthday she was named, "Peggi Sandi," a mispelled version of my name. Everyone calls her by her nickname, Eggi--hence the title of the exhibition and the accompanying book, "Eggi's Village," on which I am now working.
The exhibition attempts to answer my original questions through photographs. To help me in my research I took pictures of just about everything I saw so that I could remember the scenes of daily life and ask questions about things that I didn't understand. I also took pictures of Eggi from the time she was born so that I could follow her lifecycle. The result is a unique photographic record of a young girl growing up in a matrilineal society. To Eggi's experiences I have added the most important life cycle events facing men and women in her village. With this record it is possible to elucidate what the Minangkabau mean when they refer to their social system as a "matriarchate."
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