The changing Asmat world: a survey of cultural and artistic change from 1950-2001

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Dobratz, Lee
Martin, Jerry
Moore-Jansen, Peer H.

This paper documents the effects of rapid culture transition in a culture that had few elements of change imposed upon them. It is usually very difficult to approximate causative relationships initiated by culture change, as there are usually so many elements involved that no direct correlations can be discerned. Although the scope of these elements was far-reaching, the causative factors were few, thereby enabling correlations to be established. By documenting outside cultural forces and investigating their effects on the formal and iconographic changes in artistic representation, the present investigation makes a direct correlation between the cessation of warring culture and change in conduct of traditional rituals and production of carvings. By identifying these correlations in Asmat society, perhaps my research concepts can be applied to similar situations in other cultures. The problem with contemporary Asmat carving is that it seems to be very similar to pre-contact objects, yet one of the main purposes for these carvings, head hunting, has been removed from the culture. How, then, do the Asmat integrate their new way of life with their old traditions? To investigate this issue, this study explored the history of use and ritual concerning the bis pole, a well-known form produced by the Asmat. It also analyzed the poles artistically, attempting to find differences between old (1954-1981) and new (1981-2001) poles. The bis pole is ideal for analysis here, as its purpose historically incorporated commemoration of the dead, avenging the spirits who were killed in inter-village raids, and the rebalancing of life force that is the driving force behind their cosmology. The research materials used here consisted of written documents by Catholic missionaries embedded in the Asmat region, research on the Asmat by anthropologists and artists, interviews I conducted with Crosier missionaries that served in Asmat, and formal and iconographical analysis of 43 bis poles. These interviews were especially helpful, and made it possible to pinpoint specific areas of discussion not covered in previous written works. The Crosiers and their attitude toward indigenous cultures are central to the transformation of this society. Bishop Alphonse Sowada, who attained a master’s degree in Anthropology before being assigned to Asmat, directed this group of missionaries to incorporate Catholic dogma with native beliefs so as not to completely decimate the history and culture of the native people. So far the present investigation suggests through literature review and artistic analysis a marked changes both in carving form and ritual content between the days of head hunting and now. The Asmat have embraced the cessation of raiding and head hunting, and have adapted both their rituals and their art to maintain their cultural traditions. Many traditional head hunting symbols, such as the praying mantis, have been discontinued. The purpose of the bis feast cycle was always to rebalance life force in their animistic society. Now they perform the cycle without seeking vengeance for their family members who died violently. They now focus more on the remembrance of the dead than on the grief for the dead who are represented in the poles. By finding direct correlations between culture change and artistic expression, this study has utilized a construct by which to investigate dynamic situations such as those in Asmat over the last 60 years. It has also identified specific topics, too extensive to attempt here, of further research that are important for a complete understand of their culture and history.

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A project submitted to the Department of Anthropology of Wichita State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts