Art of the Asmat


Asmat art

‘Asmat-ow’ means ‘we, the true people’, and ‘as asmat’ means ‘we, the people of the tree.’ For the Asmat, a tree is identical with a human being. Trees are inhabited by the souls of the dead. Myths tell that mythical ancestors can emerge from trees. Ancestor figures are carved from wood. To evaluate Asmat art, twelve different cultural groups are to be taken into account. They are to be differentiated less in terms of language but rather with respect to characteristic feasts, in which cultural objects temporarily play an important role, as for example the omu-spirit pole, the wuramon-soal boat, the masks, the bis-ancestor poles, the basosuankus logs or the bünüt-crocodile representations.


Art can create a unity between spirit and body. The artist, the cescuipit (talented man), is able to unite earthly and spiritual forces. This unity can be achieved by a carving, a song, a mythical narration or the sound of drums. Headhunting, ancestor representations, rituals and art are inseparable elements in traditional Asmat life. Among the cescuipit, the wood carvers (wow ipit) are highly esteemed. The cescuipits instruct male family members or - during the preparation of a feast - helpers how to work on smaller details of a carving. For a simple carver to become a real cescuipit requires inherent talent, creativity, cultural knowledge and personal charisma. As elsewhere in the world, the artists in Asmat also have to cope with the present. In Asmat art, two art categories can be distinguished:
a. Traditional objects produced for a ceremony. They are made according to age-old concepts and have a ritual function and meaning.
b. Contemporary art which is free from functional constraints and the necessity to pay heed to tradition-bound prescriptions, but is based on the artist’s creative confrontation with his culture-bound philosophy and his experience of the present.