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Irian Jaya - Tribal Art of the Asmat Region



The Asmat homeland comprises the rugged and isolated southern coast of Irian Jaya. It is an area of approximately 10,000 square miles and comprises mainly swamps and mangroves. The journal of the late Michael Rockefeller describes it as "...essentially a gigantic mud plain covered by ...tropical rain forest. Numberless rivers intersect it. Beneath the green blanket of forests lies mud ... besides one or two forlorn patches of firm sand, the spongy soil yields easily to the thread of human feet. Mud is everywhere; even the rivers are grey with it."  


Left: Male-female fertility figure from the Asmat region.
Right: Standing male figure from the Asmat region.

Ancestor figures were traditionally made only for the festival honouring Fumer-ipits. Tourists demand, however, as resulted in a change to this custom. Previously, after the festival, the figure is discarded into the forests near a sago tree because it was believed that as the wood of the carving is deteriorated, the power of the ancestor was transferred to the sago palm. Other ancestor carvings are designed as elements in larger carvings, such as canoe prows, paddles or ancestor poles.

The Asmat believe that all things have a spirit whether humans, animals, plants and even special locations such as a whirlpool or the bottom of a river. They also believe that the world is divided between that which can be seen and that which is unseen which is the realm of the spirits. It is considered important to maintain a proper balance between the seen and the unseen. In this respect, birth and death balanced the population between the seen and unseen realms and one cannot take place without the other. Should an imbalance happen, this will manifest itself in disease, hunger, death and misfortune which will be caused by the unsettled spirits.  


Asmat shields featuring the image of an ancestor.

Traditionally, shields were carved prior to a headhunting reprisal raid, which was organised to avenge the death of the ancestor for whom the shield was named. A shield always represents an ancestor. It is named after him and the ancestor's spirit is believed to be present in the shield and make the owner fierce, powerful and invincible. Shields are considered so powerful that it may control the owner. Shields also provide spiritual help to the owner in hunting regular prey for food.

A shield is carved out of the lightweight flattened (or plank) buttress root of a mangrove tree-- the root is planed to half an inch thick, except for a protrusion left on one side for a handle. The front of the shield is carved in high relief. They include symbols of wild boar tusks or bones, flying foxes, the tails of tree kangaroos, whirlpools. Some symbols are believed to be so powerful that just by seeing these symbols, the enemy will flee in terror or be immobilised in fear. But such powerful symbols require strict rituals of appeasement. A special feast, the yamas pokumbu is held to call upon the ancestor's spirit to enter the war shields.

The spirit in the shield must be properly treated or it might cause disease, or doom hunting efforts and rot the sago palms. During festivals, shields are decorated with tassels of sago leaves and placed near each other so the spirits may interact. Shields are placed near doorways to protect the home from evil spirits and human intruders.

Shields from different areas have different features: some have a phallic protrusion at the top, others have a symbolic head at the top, yet others add facial features of the ancestor at the top.

A typical Asmat drum.


Asmat drums are made in exactly the same way that the mythological figure Fumer-ipits is said to have made the drum that brought the Asmat people to life. The drums are carved from a single piece of wood and the handle is decorated with head hunting symbols and covered with the skin of a monitor lizard, attached with an adhesive made from blood and lime. Indeed, the mythological Fumer-ipits was thus not only the first wood carver but also the first drummer.

The hourglass shaped drums take a long time to make and require constant attention as the drum may split during the drying process. Each drum is carved from a solid log being specially selected for its soft centre which can be easily removed with a hard palm wood stick. A lot of water is needed for this task which is usually performed by the banks of a river preferably at high tide so that the wood chips wash away. Once the centre hole is made, the hourglass shape is obtained by placing hot embers on the wood to burn it slowly. The charred canter is then scraped out afterwards, the exterior is shaped out leaving the curved handles.

A drum is tuned by holding the drum close to a fire and allowing the skin to shrink to the correct tension. Because of the high humidity, a drum skin loses tension rapidly and needs to be retuned every twenty to thirty minutes. The picture of the drum is determined by its length and diameter. Each drum can produce only a single tone and so usually a number of drums and drummers are used.

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