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The Asmat

New Guinea

*Displayed in First World Exhibition*

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A former Dutch colony, Irian Jaya is the western half of the island of New Guinea. It is the largest and most inhospitable province of Indonesia. On the coast of the sea of Afraura, between wetland and tropical forest, lies the homeland of the Asmat tribe, the forest people.

Asmat men adorn their noses with tusks of nautilus shells to look like wild boars. Known as fierce warriors with a long history of cannibalism, they are also gifted artists who make some of the most beautiful sculptures of the tribal world.

Asmat Sculpture

Asmat Sculpture

Their founding myth is based on the legend of their ancestor Biwaripit, who lived alone in the jungle. Solitude began to weigh heavy on him, so he started sculpting trees in his own image and made totems to keep him company. One night, when he was playing the drum, he heard voices and saw his statues dance and come to life. Humans were thus born. But, as they began fighting with each other, they decided to split up into different isolated villages. This is when the Asmat people settled in the jungle.

The Asmat became head hunters to honor their dead and they became cannibals to take in their victims' powers. In their cosmogony, three worlds share the universe. The lower world of the living, asmat, the middle world where souls and spirits mingle, amer ow, and the higher world of paradise, safan, where the spirits can rest in peace once they are avenged.

Asmat Nose Ornament

Asmat Nose Ornament

Harmony, balance between these three worlds is necessary to guarantee serene and prosperous lives. Maintaining the equilibrium between the world of the living and that of the dead is achieved by sculpting wood. Statues are dedicated to ancestors so as to secure their protection. As a prelude to warfare, tradition suggests pouring the blood of an enemy at the foot of a totem to release the spirit of the dead person it holds. If this ritual is not accomplished, the spirit of the deceased will roam here below among the living, causing epidemics and famine in the village.