Asmat Economy

Contemporary Issues


The annual Cultural Festival and Art Auction provides artists with the opportunity to sell their works in a large public plaza to government officials, foreign visitors, as well as well-off residents of Agats. Carvers who are fortunate enough to have their sculptures selected for the auction will likely see their works go for several times the amount they would bring during the rest of the year. Although many sculptures that become part of the auction continue to incorporate Asmat patterns and subject matter, some now incorporate sculptural styles that come from other parts of Indonesia.

This carving by Hendrikus Junuap sold for 35.000.000 Rupia at the 2009 Asmat Cultural Festival and Art Auction. It received the highest bid - over $3,700.00.


Economic Issues

Asmat culture, like cultures throughout the world, is made up of people who have a wide variety of experiences, interests, and resources. In many Asmat communities people support themselves through the natural resources provided by the rain forest environment. Pulp harvested from sago palms along with fish constitute the basic dietary elements. These foods are supplemented with fruits, vegetables, and Capricorn beetle larvae that also come from the wilderness.

While subsistence economies remain strong and pervasive, depending on village location and access to markets, a limited number of individuals earn cash through the sale of items such as fish, boar, coconuts, and art. Revenue generated from the sale of these items is often unreliable. Proceeds from sales may go toward purchasing rice, tobacco, or other consumable products.

The range of success in terms of generating income is significant at the annual art auction. If fortunate enough to have his work selected for the event, a carver may see it go for anywhere between $50.00 to $3,500.00. This rare infusion of cash may generate investment in house repair/construction, a television set (depending on the village location), funds to support a work for the next carving competition, fuel, tobacco, and other items or activities. With few people having access to quality secure banking services it is difficult to channel the money toward more long-term investments.

People also work for government agencies including schools, the police force, and the hospital. Religious institutions, businesses, and the logging and construction industries offer some employment opportunities for Asmat individuals as well. These jobs can provide steady cash incomes. However, opportunities for Asmat individuals tend to remain limited with the bulk of manual labor going to Asmat individuals and a disproportionate number of leadership and instructional positions going to people who are not Asmat.

Access to products produced throughout the world continues to grow. Today it is possible to stop at a small shop or toko along the raised boardwalk from Agats to Syuru and purchase a can of Coke Zero. Agats is now a cosmopolitan environment where imported goods influence art traditions. The influence can be seen on the most basic level, in the materials that artists use.

For example, some artists use the contents of alkaline batteries to create the black dying element for pigments rather than traditional charcoal. Similarly, weavers unravel woven plastic bags and then incorporate the plastic strands into new works created primarily from plant material. The plastic strands add colorful highlights. Katerina Sou used this technique to create a skirt that was purchased for the AMAA @ UST during October of 2009 in Agats, Papua, Indonesia. 

An unidentified youth in a Superman costume uses a traditional paddle and canoe to navigate the waterways of Agats. Photo by Julie Risser, September 2009