The Art of the Asmat: Civilization beyond Papua’s Forest

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The Asmat is one of the Papuan tribes which inhabit the Southwestern part of West Papua. Today, the area which the Asmat people are living is protected within the Lorentz National Park and became one of the World Heritage Site.

Basically, the Asmat people are divided into two groups– the one who lives in the forest, and another one who lives near the coastline. The two groups are also divided into twelve ethnic sub-groups which are the Joirat, Bismam, Becembub, Emari Ducur, Simai, Unir Siran, Unir Epmak, Bras, Yupmakcain, Aramatak, Safan, and Kenekap.

As a diverse tribe, the Asmat people also speak five different dialects in their language. Uniquely, the diversity of the sub-groups, their rituals, and language dialects did not affect their sense of identity. There is an unspoken rule of being Asmat people despite the slight differences.

The Asmat people are blessed with the rich natural resources and environment. This has given the tribe unique tradition and let them develop a complex culture, especially in rituals and art.

The Story of Fumeripits and His Tifa

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According to the legend, the Asmat people believe that they are the descendant of Fumeripits – a demigod who was the first man living on the land. The myth of Fumeripits told that he was so lonely that he created statues out of wood carvings. He also carved Tifa, a small drum to accompany him on his lonely days.

One day, he played the drum and sung so loud that the statues began to live and danced with him. The living statues were the beginning of the Asmat people. Since then, Fumeripits made houses and exploring forests along with his tribe to create villages.

This is why carving woods are a sacred activity to the Asmat people. Originally, the men who carve woods are chosen people who they believed are the true descendants of Fumeripits. The statues, Tifas, totems, boats, and shields were made to complete their mystical rituals.

The Sophisticated Wood Carvings

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The wood carvings of Asmat are linked closely to their beliefs of Fumeripits and other traditions. Surrounded by fertile lands which are rich in natural resources, the Asmat people find their woods easily. They even have a different standard for making each carved item.

For instance, they use ironwood or sago tree bark to make spears, knives, and other weapons. As for other carvings, they may use sago tree or yerak wood which has softer textures.

One of the unique facts of the Asmat wood carvings is that they can make sophisticated carvings without having to draw a pattern first. They do it by directly cutting the wood and carve it using a stone ax, animals’ teeth, or clamshells. To them, carving is a transcendental experience which connects them with the spirit of their ancestors.

The designs most commonly involve people, animals, trees, and geometrical patterns. Each of the patterns was made to represent the ancestors’ spirit or to express specific feelings of loss, sadness, or happiness. For centuries, the Asmat carvers managed to find natural colorings for their carvings. It mostly comes from plants, fruits, and crushed stones.

Asmat People, Loved and Not Forgotten

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Despite being isolated by their geographic location, the Asmat people have its own reputation in the world. Its woodcarvings are being exhibited in popular museums in various countries such as United States of America and Netherlands.

To respect their way of life, the Indonesian government still discuss and held a regular meeting with the local tribal chief. This way, the Asmat people can still commit to their tradition while incorporating with the world’s advances in health and education. With a better knowledge, hopefully, the people of Asmat would continue to survive even better in life.

For example, the tradition of Bisj in Asmat involves head-hunting, bringing the head of an enemy as a proof, and the village people would eat the rest of the body together. To welcome the event, a carving is also made, and they would feast together in a specific-purpose house. Yet, through the culture and knowledge assimilation, the Bisj tradition is fading, and the government has offered a better idea of carving competition which is sponsored by the native people.

Or, when the Asmat people believe that sudden death is caused by evil, not because of illness, the government starts to introduce health systems such as doctors and medication. The introduction of the health system can also raise the life expectancy of the people. Thus, so far, the Indonesian government puts effort to maintain a good relationship with the local chief to ensure a positive development while still preserving the tradition.

 

How the world embraces the art of Asmat is highly based on its quality. The complex design, the exotic colors, and the unique making-process are what make the art valuable. Although to the Asmat people carving woods is more than just creating artworks, the world sees the historical and cultural values in it.