Kamoro Woodcarving, The Unusual Talent of West Papuan’s Tribe

West Papua

There is always something impressive when discussing West Papua. It has 24 tribes spread across 13 districts and cities. They talk in different languages, and each of them can even have more than one language. According to the Indonesia Ministry of Education and Culture’s (Kemdikbud) records, there are 102 languages in the province. 

Meet the Kamoro, one of the indigenous Papuan tribes who still adhere to the values of their unique traditions and culture, including traditional ceremonies, dances, natural rituals, and so on. Besides, they are also known for their outstanding carving skills. The tradition of carving has existed since the time of the ancestors. What is so special about Kamoro wood carving?

The People

West Papua

The Kamoro tribe lives in the southwest coastal area of Mimika regency in West Papua, where fish, sago, and various other food ingredients such as cassava are abundant. They meet their food needs independently by taking from nature, classified as semi-nomadic hunting, gathering, and fishing. They are also known to have various cultural properties, such as traditional ceremonies, dances, natural rituals, and handicrafts.

The History 

West Papua

The carvers from the Kamoro tribe are called Maramowe. They got the expertise to carve from their ancestral heritage. Along the way, the carving art of the Kamoro people has experienced ups and downs. From the 1950s to the 1970s, far before it was known as one of the woodcarving arts in West Papua, there were very few Kamoro carvings.

Kamoro carving was far from aesthetic. Over time, they become less productive, and the carvers’ enthusiasm to produce works can be said to be almost non-existent. At that time, Kal Muller—a Hungarian-born historian and anthropologist—worked as a consultant at PT Freeport Indonesia.

He is also an observer of Kamoro culture and has lived for a dozen years with the Kamoro people. He was able to mingle and encouraged them to return to carving. Moreover, he helps Kamoro carvers by initiating the Kamoro Kakuru (Kamoro Festival) event and brings Kamoro cultural arts to the wider public through various cultural events and the books he wrote.

Maramowes was again productive and began to be introduced to the general public in Indonesia and the world. The oldest works of Kamoro carvings were displayed in six famous museums within the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The works were obtained by Dutch and British expeditions between the 19th – 20th century. 


The Characteristic

West Papua

The Maramowe’s art of carving is a cultural icon of the Kamoro tribe of West Papua. The patterns used are based on past experiences and history. Each Maramowe lineage has its unique carved motif that no other lineage should copy and will gain disaster if it is violated.

  • Types

There are few types of carvings in Kamoro wood carvings: yamate (shield), eme (drum), lung (sago bowl), wemawe (statue of person), po (paddle), and the most sacred is mbitoro (ancestral totem). They also carve canoes that have special meaning. 

Wemawe is the form that is mostly made. It initially depicts the figure of an ancestor. Therefore, it is often named according to the name of the ancestor. Large wemawe are commonly used for outdoor decorations and even used as a monument in the field.

While mbitoros or ancestral totems are ceremonial spirit poles, a traditional house without a mbitoro is considered invalid. Mbitoro can only be made by Maramowe in hidden places, not to be seen by women and children. It symbolizes those who recently passed away and used in rituals. This made Kamoro carvings one of the proud woodcarving arts in West Papua.

Usually, mbitoro is made from mangi-mangi trees. It is dyed with natural colors from the shells, wood roots, leaves, and charcoal. The Kamoro people believe mbitoro will protect the house from harm and evil.

  • Motifs

If the carving art of the Asmat tribe reflects their dead family, Maramowe takes natural motifs for their carving. For example, various forms of birds, fish gills, bones, teeth, or snakes. The shape most often found is the mopere or navel, which is considered the core of life for the Kamoro. Mopere also symbolizes fertility for plants and crops.

  • Unusual & abstract style

Kamoro art has its own distinctive features and comes up with unique elements that probably most people outside West Papua rarely see. The inspirations may come from animals, human figures, or characters in mythologies and folklore. However, the Maramowe modified the style in often abstract or surreal ways. They are not afraid of bending the sizes and proportions to execute desired artistic effects.

As one of the woodcarving arts in West Papua, Kamoro carvings are made beautiful, smooth, and unique. Due to the expertise and captivating work, the local wisdom of the Kamoro tribe has become widely recognized in the world through the richness of tribal culture reflected in their carvings and art. Now Kamoro wood carvings have spread in several countries, such as Brazil, the Netherlands,  Mexico,  and other countries.