Asmat Memorial Pole (bisj)

Asmat peoples, Papua Province, Indonesia


Object Place: Indonesia, New Guinea

Dimensions

314.96 cm (124 in.)

Accession Number

1994.417

Medium or Technique

Wood, pigments, beads, fiber, feathers

Not On View

Collections

Africa and Oceania

Classifications

Ritual objects

The Asmat live near the streams and alluvial swamps of the southwest coast of New Guinea. Renowned in the past as warriors and headhunters, they were among the last New Guinea peoples to come under colonial rule when Dutch authorities established a government post on Asmat territory in 1939. Asmat artists are known today for the boldness and scale of their wood carvings, exemplified by bisj (or mbis) poles, which can be up to thirty feet high. Artists fashioned each pole from a single, ritually felled mangrove tree, carving the inverted trunk into human figures and the main root into a pierced triangular projection. The figures commemorated ancestors whose deaths during warfare had to be avenged to assuage their ever-present spirits. In preparation for counterattacks, poles were carved and erected in front of the ceremonial men’s house, or yeu. Upon return from a successful campaign, the celebrants discarded the sculptures. This pole incorporates six superposed human figures with elongated, interlocking limbs. The life-size heads display aggressive expressions, pierced septums, and bared teeth. Curvilinear incising, red, black, and white pigments, and fiber appendages adorn the bodies, faces, and a rudimentary bird form. The sculptures could be interpreted as a canoe that carried the spirits of clan members to the realm of the dead. The openwork projection at the top may represent the canoe’s exaggerated prow but also can be interpreted as a phallus, alluding to male prowess. In contrast to most bisj poles, this one is carved from hardwood.

Provenance

Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria [see note]. January 24, 1991, sold by Tambaran Gallery, New York, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1994, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: January 26, 1994 and February 26, 2014)

NOTE: Attempts to verify this information have not yet been successful.

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel