Asmat Tribe’s Wood Sculpture: A History, Tradition, and Commodity

As the largest ethnic group in Papua, Asmat tribe resides in a part of West Papua specifically southwest of the island. These Melanesian people live separately into two regions where some of them inhabit the coastal area and the other live far in the hinterland of the forest. Discussing Asmat, it is directly connected with a traditional life in keeping their belief toward the ancestors. One of the ways how to retain hereditary habits is by shaping a block of wood becomes the sculpture.

The Chronicle of Wood Sculpture as a Sacred Tradition

Carving is an ingrained habit of Asmat passing for generations in years. It is not only an idea to make use of the natural abundance as available in the forest, but woodcarving is just beyond what it seems. Therefore, this activity is a kind of sacred tradition which treated with great respect as they want to reflect the forebears into the sculpture they made. The Asmat believe when they carve the wood, they communicate with the spirit as well. It is a media for them to link the living and the dead which impossible to separate from their daily lives.

Carving skill is a gift yet it still can be learned by others like a father who teaches the children how to create the boat. The talented carvers often called wowipits, wow means the activity of woodcarving and ipits means the man. They take a big part in sculpture making especially for the sacred one dedicated to the ancestors’ spirit.

The Purpose of Woodcarving


Mainly, for the Asmat, carving the wood has some objectives. At first and the irreplaceable goal is to memorize their family who passed away or their ancestors. Besides, they want to appreciate the nature where they live by moulding the natural characters on the wood. Another reason is to express their feeling of happiness or the contrary. Asmat is an ethnic group who highly appreciate the nature as they live side by side with it.

The Characteristic of the Sculpture

Asmat carvings are famous for their several different forms. Mostly those form figures which reflect the dead family. These designs sometimes curve on their boats because they believe that the dead one will be very happy to be kept in mind. Then, there are shields and natural patterns of trees and animals. Trees design depicted a deep philosophy for the Asmat because they think that tree is like a human. The root of the tree means the human’s foot, while the stem means the body, the branches are for hands, and the leaves mean head. Those made based on their own daily life and impossible to have the similarity considering the Asmat often directly carve without making any sketch.

One of the famous sculpture is called bis pole. This is a figure of their ancestor in their life. They create this figure as the remembrance of the dead one. They believe when they make the bis, the spirit of the family who already passed away will come and live in that sculpture. Thus, sometimes bis carvings have a name based on the people they dedicated to. Not all of dead people will be remembered through this sculpture, just some particular people worth this tribute.

Material, Tools, and Techniques

The carvings are made using the sago, teak, and mangrove wood were taken from the jungle. To create an astounding sculpture, they use the simple tools instead of the complicated one like a machine. They just use the rock axe to cut down the tree, bone, and shell to carve the wood. Fortunately, despite of the simple tools, they enable to make the impressive sculpture that widely known throughout the world.

The making process of the sculpture needs a long procedure. Start by cutting down the tree by the male of Asmat which later will be brought to the village. Before, they should remove the branches from the tree. At the village, this wood is given to wowipits as the talented carvers. It takes a day or more to make one sculpture.

Besides, the Asmat also coloring the sculpture mostly with red, black, and white. Each of these colours has its own meaning. The red colour means meat and blood, white means bones, and black refers to their black-coloured skin. Those colours made from the natural sources that can be found around.


Wood Sculpture Sold as a Potential Commodity

Because of its detail and unique forms, the woodcarvings made by Asmat tribe become the potential commodity for them. Even though it costs a lot of money but the result is worth to buy. Especially for those who live far away from West Papua, it can be a lifetime souvenir that cannot be found easily in any place. The simple souvenir that possible to bring across the world is a unique panel of wood with tribal lines and animal form on it.

The art of carving is common and can be learned by some people. However, for the Asmat tribe in West Papua, it is a hereditary skill and the special one because they still involving their beliefs in making the process not merely about fulfilling the need.