Bis Pole, late 1950s
Asmat people, Omadesep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia
Wood, paint, fiber; H. 216 in. (548.6 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1611)
The most spectacular sculptures of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea are the ancestor poles known as bis. Made in only a limited area of the Asmat region, bis poles were, and are, created as the focal points of a memorial feast honoring individuals who have recently died and become ancestors. Each figure on the poles represents and is named for a specific deceased individual. In the past, the poles also served to remind 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. In the past, the feast was held in conjunction with a headhunting raid. Today, the Asmat no longer practice warfare and a bis feast may be staged to alleviate a specific crisis or in connection with male initiation.
Despite the enormous time and effort that goes into their creation, bis poles are made for one-time use. At the conclusion of the bis feast, the poles are taken down and transported to the groves of sago palms, on which the Asmat depend for their primary food, where they are left to rot or are ritually destroyed. As the poles slowly decay, their supernatural power seeps into the ground, strengthening the palms and ensuring an abundant harvest of sago.
Each bis pole is carved from a single piece of wood. To create the pole's distinctive form, carvers select trees with planklike buttress roots. During carving, all but one root is removed and the tree inverted, so that the remaining root forms the winglike projection (cemen) at the top. Bis poles consist of several components. The main section (bis anakat), with the carved figures, portrays the individual for whom the pole is named and other deceased relatives. The cemen represents the pole's phallus and incorporates motifs symbolic of headhunting, which is also associated with fertility in Asmat cosmology. The lower portion of the pole is called the ci (canoe) and, as in this example, at times depicts a canoe, which served to transport the spirits of the dead to the afterworld (safan). The pointed base (bino) was often inserted into the ground.