For the Asmat tribe in West Papua, artifacts and body decorations are made for aesthetic as well as spiritual purposes. Craftsmen added sacred components that matched the expectations of their ancestors. In this case, some of the contents of the Asmat artifacts have become art objects that have high value for art, but there is invisible meaning. Here is the info!
The Unique Characteristics of Asmat Tribe Art
The Asmat’s spectacular art has inspired many art lovers, museum curators, and art historical figures. Art collectors, in particular, are eager to relate their objects to symbolic content. The Asmat people seek to mediate between themselves and their visible and invisible ancestors. It also relates to how they adjust the artifact’s imaginary content.
In addition to their art in major Western ethnographic museums and tribal art collections, the Asmat are known for headhunting activities in the past. Headhunting generally occurs in core groups, as the goal is to get the ancestor’s name (not the actual head). These names aim to liberate by cutting off the associated head for the ritual of the kin group.
In other words, the Asmat are famous for their attackers, and those who are attacked know each other. Battles generally end once the anticipated number of heads is reached. It is wrong, but in the case of Asmat in West Papua, the kin of the group is the enemy. Then, headhunting goes hand in hand with the consumption of beheaded warrior meat.
Asmat elders teach certain values to their present generation. The land in question must seek permission from the bearer of the name before being used for hunting, fishing, or gathering. In addition, this also impacts the practice of giving children strange names at an early age to outwit the evil forest spirits.
In addition, there are war canoes, ancestral poles, and carvings bearing the hunting symbol’s head, which are permanent reminders. This is because the government has issued a new regulation that headhunting is prohibited. On the Asmat side, there is a religious opinion – the majority said they were happy that headhunting and cannibalism did not exist.
Today, the name of the ancestor is commemorated by the tribal chief. Asmat-made items had to be made according to the requirements of the ancestors. All kinds of artifacts had symbols from the headhunting of the past two. As a result, despite the prohibition on headhunting, leftovers of these traditions appear from time to time in West Papua.
What Makes the Asmat Tribe Object-Mediator?
Headhunting exists in Asmat material culture, which is expressed in rituals. It can classify Asmat rituals into two main categories: ephemeral and long-lasting, which last several years. One of the iconic art pieces is the Bisj Pole, reminding descendants of a headhunter to commemorate the dead whose statues were carved on the poles.
After the ritual is complete, the poles rot in the sago fields as a tradition. Despite their massive commercialization, Asmat ritual carvings are related to the ritual context. For example, some Asmat tribes transfer the spirits of their relatives who are incarnated into the mother’s funeral masks and stored in the house’s attic.
The presence of the invisible entity in the object is closely related to the object containing its spirit. They realize that breaking the norms will result in them being punished. Although Protestant missionaries and the government tried to prevent the Asmat people from clinging to their ancestors, this long-standing cultural practice is difficult to erase.
Tradition forces the Asmat tribe to apply the way they have rituals. Various objects bear ancestral names, such as – anthropomorphic carvings, oars, canoes, spears, lint bags, houses, leashes, dog teeth, domestic dogs, and pigs. All these aspects have the general term in West Papua; etsjow’pok (things that make it grow).
Asmat Tribe Artifacts
Every activity in daily life is meaningful for the Asmat tribe. Ancestors are everywhere with other supernatural beings, such as forest spirits. Chronologically, there are three steps of cultural exchange between the Asmat tribe and their ancestors. First, ancestors pass on positive information to their offspring. Second, the Asmat are obliged to practice positive behavior to please them.
Finally, in the third stage, the ancestors react to their offspring (behavior during dreams, sanctions for Asmat violations, and magical gifts to them). Therefore, the relationship between the Asmat tribe and their ancestors synergizes with each other. Following this idea, any Asmat-made artifact can accommodate at least one spiritual entity or spirit that inhabits people, the dambuw.
The phenomenon of dambuw has a more complex meaning than the explanation of dreams or experiences. The Asmat claims that dambuw can appear in different places in West Papua. However, a dambuw cannot be permanently fixed to an object or a person. It worked when spirit elements were lost if the carvings were discarded, destroyed, or sold as soon as the ritual was accomplished.
In general, any action related to tradition, especially art—must have a consistent purpose with the ancestors. If an offering is meant to anticipate an event, it must be performed, or one risks ancestral sanction. No one should ignore it, and when things are carved to be sold on, each object must go through the approval of the ancestors.