Asmat Art Forms

Asmat Art Forms

Until the late 1950s, virtually all Asmat art was created for local use in religious ceremonies or as funcitonal objects, such as canoes and bowls. Many Asmat religious rites, in whole or in part, honor recent ancestors - men and women from the community who have recently died - and assist in sending their spirits onward to safan - the land of the ancestors. Nearly all the human figures that appear in customary art forms, such as ancestor poles (bis), represent, and are named for, specific individual ancestors. While virtually all Asmat today are Catholic, they continue to practice many of the customary ceremonies and art forms in conjunction with their Christian religious beliefs.

As in most Pacific societies, the materials that artists use and the type of objects they create are customarily determined by gender. Men carve and predominantly work in harder materials, such as wood, bone, and shell although they also make ancestor masks from fiber and basketry. Women practice the fiber arts and work in softer materials, such as plant fiber and leaves, creating both religious objects, such as ceremonial mats, as well as functional items, such as carrying bags and skirts. Men and women with exceptional artistic talent are recognized by the community and given honorific titles. Men with such talents are known by the title wow ipits ("master carver") and women by the title cescu cepes (essentially "master fiber artist").

Major customary art forms among the Asmat include ancestor poles (bis), shields, soul canoes (wuramon), ceremonial mats, bags and a diversity of jewelry and other forms of personal ornamentation. Beginning in the late 1960s, contemporary artists have also added a number of new art forms, such as ajour (openwork) carvings, decorative plaques, pictorial mats and narrative carvings depicting scenes from daily life and Asmat oral tradition as well as Biblical subjects.