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6 / Death

Bis Pole
Bis Pole
Artist / Origin Asmat artist(s), Omadsep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia
Region: Oceania
Date Late 1950s
Material Wood, paint, and fiber
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 18 ft. (5.48 m.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Additional Resources

Caglayan, Ph.D., Emily. “The Asmat.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/asma/hd_asma.htm (October 2004).

D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Smidt, Dirk A.M., ed. Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea. Singapore; Leiden; Amsterdam: Periplus Editions and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, in association with C. Zwartenkot, 1993.

Van der Zee, Pauline. Art as Contact with the Ancestors: Visual Arts of the Kamoro and Asmat of West Papua (Bulletins of the Royal Tropical Institute). Amsterdam: KIT, 2009.

Bis Pole

» Asmat artist(s), Omadsep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia

Traditionally, the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea believed that no death was the result of accident or aging.

Rather, every death was considered the work of an enemy—brought about through combat or through magic—and, in turn, every death had to be avenged. After a community had experienced a certain number of deaths, they would stage a bis feast. The creation and erection of bis poles were central to these ceremonial events. They were a means of bidding farewell to the deceased and, at the same time, promising retaliation for their deaths.

Bis poles are set up facing the river and serve metaphorically as canoes to carry the spirits of the dead across the sea to the realm of the ancestors. The vertical section of the pole is made up of figures representing the deceased, while the bottom portion sometimes literally takes the form of a canoe. Each bis pole is carved in one piece from a single, inverted mangrove tree. The projecting element at the top of each pole is crafted from one of the tree’s wide, flat roots; the other roots are removed. It is carved with phallic references, fertility symbols, and other motifs evocative of headhunting traditions.

In previous eras, Asmat bis ceremonies were accompanied by headhunting excursions. As in many cultures around the world, for the Asmat, the head is thought to contain the soul and is, therefore, the most sacred part of the body. Taking the head of another was a means of redressing the imbalances created by deaths in a community.

Although headhunting ceased among the Asmat in the mid-twentieth century, the steps involved in the production of bis poles echo elements of that practice. The maker of the pole first cuts down the tree and then strips it, releasing its bloodlike, red sap in the process. Next, the tree is carried into the village, where it is received with the same enthusiasm that would have accompanied the arrival of an enemy corpse. Finally, after being carved, the completed pole is erected outside the men’s house, just as the decapitated head of the enemy might have been displayed.

In keeping with the notion that the world must be kept in balance, once the bis ceremony is over, the poles are removed to sago palm groves, where they are left to rot. As the poles decay, they nourish the earth, contributing to a bountiful harvest of sago, a staple of the Asmat diet.

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