4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia are remote, not particularly easy to get to and are often overlooked and ignored by outsiders and travellers. For Will Buckingham though, they seemed perfect, even more so when he found out about the sculptors who lived there. Cobbling together a research fund he became an anthropologist in training and started to make his way out there.

He had in mind finding three sculptors, Matias Fatruan, Abraham Amelwatin, and Damianus Masele. Each of them had a particular set of skills in their carving and to discover the cultural references that help define their art. It was a world that still had its roots deep in their past even though the modern world had tried to push and pull them in different directions. Their art is something that they saw cannot be taught to anyone as each sculpture is as much the work of the ancestors as it is the work of the craftsmen.

The title of the book comes from a conversation that he has with Fatruan. He accuses people like Buckingham, of being one of those that come and enquire about all aspects of their lives and culture, but who can never fully understand them because they do not have the same deep links with the ancestors that are all around them.

It is a culture that has been mostly suffocated by the catholic religion, but if you know where to look then you can still see glimpses of the earlier traditions still shining through. He is prepared to stay with the villagers and get to know the people at a much deeper level. This closeness to the villagers has its own problems, he gets very ill and is treated as a Tanimbarese would be by using herbal medicines and witchcraft. One of the things that he learnt from this trip, is that he does see just how much of a problem a visiting anthropologist can cause to a society. He learns as much about himself as he does about the three sculptors that he is visiting. He is a talented writer and this book is full of evocative descriptions of the villages that he is living in and the people that he meets on his day to day routines. Well worth reading if you want to discover a little more about this part of the planet.

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