Myth and Ritual

Inspiration of Art

While many primal peoples in the world today face the overpowering tidal wave of so-called civilization with little chance to survive, the Asmat of Irian Jaya (Indonesia) show us that there are indeed exceptions. The book ‘Asmat - Myths and Rituals - The Inspiration of Art’ pays eloquent tribute to the power and productivity of human development. From the cover photograph to the very last photo on the back jacket it documents the progress of the Asmat within a single generation from conditions of an untouched neolithic illiterate people (graffiti drawings) to the study of literature and an active involvment in the creation of this particular book about their own culture. Photographs that relate to myths and rituals bear witness to traditional ways of life and reveal surprising similarities to our own Western culture, religious-philosophical concepts and art. Together with the Asmat we experience the roots of their religious beliefs and observe how these thought patterns accompany them through life. As a formerly isolated group strives to cope with the rapidly changing demands of life, art provides a foundation for standards within a complex structure of values. The artist has the capacity not only to perceive change but to change perception as well. Through bold experimentation, the Asmat are using their art to explore new realities of the modern world and to approach an understanding of the individual with all of his complexities, including his struggle for integration with life and his vision of it. The visual arts of the Western world are currently developing along a course quite
contrary to that now seen in Asmat art. Contemporary art in our culture is moving away from naturalistic representation in search of greater simplicity of line, form and color. Understanding works of art requires both knowledge and fantasy. In contrast, the Asmat are now striving to move from the ‘primitive’ - from an art traditionally confined to those cultural contents which are thoroughly familiar to the individual integrated into his community - towards a naturalistic, complex and figuratively expressive form of art. In this book, the astonishing diversity of Asmat art is approached for the first time through an examination of twelve different cultural groups. The different languages, regional feast ceremonies and specific ritual objects are important keys to the understanding of the fundamental philosophical affinities - and particularities - of these groups. The traditional resources of the myths, songs and art of this small group of hunters and gatherers highlight both our own past and our present struggle for existence. In spite of the Asmat culture’s distance, there is a nearness that touches us, indeed all humanity, with particular immediacy. Three exemplary major feasts celebrated by three different Asmat groups are examined in detail. The descriptions of these rituals emphasize not only differences but also the shared spiritual and philosophical characteristics that exist among these cultural groups. As an aid to comprehension the essay entitled ‘Fundamental Concepts of Asmat Religion and Philosophy’ appears before the chapters describing major traditional feasts. The description of the widely practised mask feast offers another view of the world of Asmat thought from a different perspective. In the chapter entitled ‘Asmat Art’, a table showing a selection of objects used by the twelve distinct cultural groups provides an opportunity for comparison and contrast. Both traditional and modern works of art have been included. This method of presentation is meant to give the reader an idea of the vitality and diversity of the spectrum of arts as it is represented in the different regions of Asmat, while pointing at the same time to new developments now taking shape in various areas. The modern artworks provide insight into the exciting process through which the people of Asmat are learning to cope with the present.


Myths and Rituals
The Inspiration of Art
Edited by Gunter and Ursula Konrad

Published by Erizzo Editrice, Venice
© Gunter and Ursula Konrad
456 pages, 625 pictures, most of them in color
bound edition (cloth binding)

ISBN 3-930115-11-5
English edition 1996

ISBN 3-930115-10-7 (8870770354)
German edition 1995