The Abstract and Unusual Beauty of Kamoro Woodcarving

When discussing woodcarving arts in West Papua, many people will quickly refer to Asmat tribe. While Asmat woodcarving is famous in and outside Indonesia, it is not exclusive. Kamoro people, who are the close neighbors of the Asmats, also have distinctive forms of woodcarving and sculpture arts. Despite the lack of recognition, Kamoro woodcarving has its own aesthetic appeal, which is far from lacking compared to Asmat’s.


The Recorded History of Kamoro Woodcarving

The oldest known Kamoro woodcarvings were displayed at six museums in the Netherland and United Kingdom. They were obtained by British and Dutch expeditions between 19th and 20th century. However, unlike Asmat arts, Kamoro arts are less popular, and the complete collections are owned by Rijks-museum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherland.

The rise of traveling trend and internet have helped some Kamoro woodcarving artists promoting their works. Several pieces have made their ways to other European countries outside Netherland and UK, and even to Japan. Many artists, shops, and galleries also display their works online, although the works are still confused with Asmat arts.

Kamoro woodcarving arts also found its way to public areas thanks to the relation with Freeport. Graha Sarana Buana Jaya, one of Freeport’s contractor companies tasked to build workers’ facilities, are known for hiring many locals, including woodworkers skilled in Kamoro-style carvings. Kamoro wood sculptures have adorned several facilities of the company, including the swimming pool area.


The Unique Styles of Kamoro Woodcarving

Kamoro woodcarving arts have their own distinctive features and offer unique elements that most people outside West Papua probably never see. A Kamoro artist may take inspirations from human figures, animals, or characters in folklore and mythologies. However, the style is modified in often surreal or abstract ways. Kamoro artists are not afraid of bending the proportions and sizes to achieve desired artistic effects.

One of the collections displayed at Etnografisch Museum in Antwerp, for example, shows a male figure without arms and two-dimensional latticed panel as his torso, while his head stays three-dimensional. Other figures show a canoe with several rowers that have twisted figures, or a three-dimensional woman with a split, flat panels as faces. Some human-like figures often show details such as tattoos and even obvious private parts.

Mythological figures also play great roles as inspirations for Kamoro artists. Biroko or Miroko, for example, is a mythological python that appears in local folklore about a magic snake, two sisters, and resurrections. Another mythological creature that appears as carvings is wou, a giant lizard that might have been inspired by ancient lizards in Asia.

The most distinctive forms of Kamoro woodcarvings are perhaps the mbitoros, the tall, heavy, decorative poles with paddle-like ends. They are very detailed, full of bright colors, and at some points, are ridden by young men while being hoisted into the air. Mbitoros are important for special events such as Karapao (initiation ceremony for boys), and the best artists often work for months before the actual event to finish the best mbitoros.


Kamoro Woodcarving in the Current Era

One of the reasons why Kamoro woodcarvings decline in popularity (compared to Asmat) is the fact that these arts are related to ritual practices. When the Dutch colonials and missionaries came to West Papua, they stopped many of these traditional practices. With the lack of motivations, the quality of the arts started to decline.

American copper mining company Freeport became one of the biggest patrons of Kamoro arts. Many artists have been commissioned by the company to work on various projects, inside and outside the facilities. The carvings adorned public areas in the company’s facilities and towns. Kamoro woodcarvings can also be seen at Sheraton Hotel in Timika, the capital city of Mimika, where most of Kamoro populations live.

Some Kamoro artists also take inspirations from Asmat woodcarving arts. It is not surprising to find Kamoro artists who take a little influence from Asmat arts in their works. However, Kamoro woodcarving arts still have their own unique characteristics, despite the stiff competition with Asmat arts in national and international markets.


The Potentials of Kamoro Woodcarvings

With the advent of internet, tourism, and development in West Papua, there are possibilities that Kamoro woodcarvings can get more recognitions. Kamoro woodcarvings have specific characteristics that European collectors love. While they may be less colorful than Asmat arts, the basic shapes of many Kamoro woodcarvings (statues, shields) consist of various bizarre and unorthodox shapes.

Many artists can also find opportunities to promote their works at various cultural festivals opened for tourists. Newer events such as Melanesian Culture Festival are great opportunities to showcase original arts of local people, such as stingray hats from Raja Ampat, Papua batik, Asmat woodcarvings, black pearl jewelry, noken bags, and of course Kamoro arts.

West Papua has seen the new era of development. With bigger exposure to local arts, Kamoro artists can get more opportunities to showcase their works, and not just during traditional rituals.