Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Bis Pole

ca. 1960
Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Otsjanep village, Ewta River
Asmat people
Wood, paint, fiber
H. 139 x W. 19 1/2 x D. 43 in. (353.1 x 49.5 x 109.2 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection; Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mrs. Mary C. Rockefeller, 1965
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
The most spectacular sculptures of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea are the ancestor poles known as bis. Made only in a limited area of the Asmat region, bis poles were, and are, created as the focal points of a memorial feast that honors individuals who have died recently and become ancestors. Each figure on the poles represents and is named for a specific individual. In the past, the poles also reminded the living that the dead must be avenged. In Asmat cosmology, death was always caused by an enemy, either directly in war or by malevolent magic. Each death created an imbalance that had to be corrected through the death of an enemy.
After a number of individuals in the village had died, the male elders would decide
to stage a bis feast, which was formerly held in conjunction with a headhunting raid. Today, a bis feast may be staged to alleviate a specific crisis or in connection with male initiation.
Each bis pole is carved from a single piece of wood. To create the pole’s distinctive form, carvers select trees with plank-like buttress roots. During carving, all but one of the roots are removed, and the tree is inverted, so that the remaining root forms the wing-like projection (cemen) at the top. Bis poles consist of several components. The main section (bis anakat) of this pole is unusual in that it has only a single carved figure, portraying the deceased individual for whom the pole is named, rather than the multiple figures that typically appear in this section on most bis poles. The cemen represents the pole’s phallus and incorporates motifs symbolic of headhunting, which is also associated with fertility. The lower portion of the pole is called the ci (canoe) and at times depicts the canoe that transported the ancestors to the afterworld (safan). The pointed base (bino) is often inserted into the ground.
Michael C. Rockefeller Expedition, collected 1961; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961–1965; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978

Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 111.

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