Ancestors & Woodcarving
Sculpture: a Necessary Skill and Sacred Tradition
Traditionally all youth were taught carving skills so they could produce canoes, paddles, arrows and spears. Men who had exceptional carving abilities were/are known as wowipits. They were/are responsible for planning and completing large highly sacred objects such as bisj (ancestral poles) and wuramon (soul ships).
Dirk Smidt writes the following in the introduction to Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea, which underscores the spiritual significance of sculptural forms:
The Asmat woodcarver's art is a form of communication between the living and the dead, between the community of human beings and the complex and pervasive world of the spirits. In the coastal swamps of southwest New Guinea, deceased relatives, the many birds and animals that share the land with the Asmat, and even the whirlpools and channels of the great brown rivers have a spiritual life. It is in this context that Asmat art must be understood. Despite differences in style from one carver to the next, or from one region to the next all these grand works serve the same function: to make the spirit world tangible. In doing this the artist helps bring his community into balance with the world of the spirits.
In the past carvings were so critical to daily life that each village supported its own group of carvers. Individuals who commissioned carvings assumed responsibility for feeding the carver and his family while the work was being completed. Today carvings continue make it possible for communities to make connections with the ancestral world or individuals with a departed loved one.