Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Asmat

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Located in southwestern New Guinea, the Asmat live along the vast system of rivers that flow into the Arafura Sea. With an estimated population of 70,000, the Asmat are divided into several hundred villages ranging in size from 35 to 2,000 inhabitants. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of Asmat art, the majority of which was collected in 1961 by Michael C. Rockefeller.


Wood carving is a flourishing tradition among the Asmat, and wood carvers are held in high esteem. The culture hero Fumeripits is considered to be the very first wood carver, and all subsequent wood carvers (known as wowipits) have an obligation to continue his work. The Asmat also believe that there is a close relationship between humans and trees, and recognize wood as the source of life.


According to the Asmat origin myth, Fumeripits was the first being to exist on earth, and he also created the first men's ceremonial house, or jeu (a club house for men where community issues are discussed, artwork is made, and ceremonies are held). Fumeripits would spend his days dancing along the beach, but after awhile grew tired of being alone. So, he chopped down a number of trees, carved them into human figures, and placed them inside the jeu. However, since the sculptures were inanimate, Fumeripits was still unhappy. He then decided to create a drum (1978.412.962), and chopped down another tree, hollowed out the center, and stretched a piece of lizard skin over the top. As he began to play the drum, the human figures miraculously came to life, their elbows came unstuck from their knees, and they began to dance.


Like Fumeripits, present-day Asmat have a strong tradition of carving figural sculpture out of wood. These figures (1979.206.1589), which are representations of ancestors, are traditionally displayed inside the men's ceremonial house. Although these sculptures commemorate specific individuals who have died, they are not direct portraits, and have generalized features and similar body types. A common pose for these ancestral figures is the elbows-to-knees position (or wenet pose), believed to be the same pose that all humans assume at birth and again at death.


Ancestral imagery also appears on other forms of Asmat art, including wooden war shields (1978.412.929). Shields were created as functional items for warfare, and were meant to protect the user from the spears and arrows of his enemy. At the same time, the imagery that is carved and painted on the surface of the shield endows the piece with the power of the ancestors, which is also intended to protect the user. The designs can be either figural or abstract, depending on the region from which the shield came.


Bis poles (1979.206.1611) are perhaps the most impressive works of art by the Asmat, reaching heights of up to twenty feet. These poles are carved to commemorate the lives of important individuals (usually warriors), and serve as a promise that their deaths will be avenged. These works also assist in the transport of the souls of the dead to the realm of the ancestors. The mangrove tree, from which the sculptures are created, is actually turned upside down and a single planklike root is preserved (which will ultimately project from the top of the artwork). The imagery on the pole itself varies, but usually includes a series of stacked ancestral figures. In interior Asmat villages, wuramon, or spirit canoes (1979.206.1558), serve a similar function.


Asmat body masks (1978.412.1282a) are full-length costumes made of plaited cordage composed of rattan, bark, and sago leaf fiber. The body masks are usually painted with red and white pigment, decorated with carved facial features, and given skirts made of sago leaves. The end result depicts an otherworldly being, which appears only for special funerary ceremonies, known as jipae.

Emily Caglayan, Ph.D.
Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York


Map of the island of New Guinea showing the homeland of the Asmat people.