Memorial pole (bisj)

20th century

Object Place: Papua New Guinea


142.24 cm (56 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood, pigment, vegetable fiber, beads, and feathers

Not On View


Africa and Oceania, Contemporary Art



Asmat artists of New Guinea carved poles (bisj) as memorials to clan members killed during warfare. The poles were erected after successful counterattacks to avenge the deaths. These poles may be understood as canoes incorporating ancestral figures, which carried the spirits of clan members to the realm of the dead. The openwork projection at the top represents the canoe’s exaggerated prow, but can also be interpreted as a phallus, alluding to male prowess. Large poles were set up outdoors and allowed to decay. Smaller examples, such as this one, were architectural elements in houses where men gathered for ceremonial and social activities.


May 21, 1986, sold by Wayne Heathcote (dealer), New York, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1992, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: June 30, 1992 and February 26, 2014)

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel