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6 / Death

Bis Pole
Bis Pole
Artist / Origin Asmat artist(s), Omadsep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia
Region: Oceania
Date Late 1950s
Material Wood, paint, and fiber
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 18 ft. (5.48 m.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Bis Pole

» Asmat artist(s), Omadsep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia

expert perspective

Anne D’Alleva Anne D’Alleva Associate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

For the Asmat it is very important to be in touch with the spirit world and to send souls off to the spirit world in an appropriate way, and this, of course, is where the bis poles become so important. They are conceived as sending the soul off. They are part of the ceremony that sends the soul off into the spirit world. And when they are set up, they are set up facing the river because the river leads to the sea and the spirit world is conceptualized as being sort of out there on the other side of the sea. They can be up to twenty feet tall. So they are very, very dramatic. They are made from mangrove trees. Those long roots of the mangrove tree, all of them are cut off except one, which is then carved off into this form as part of the pole. And so what you see at the top of the sculpture was actually the bottom of the roots of the tree.

Men are the carvers and carvers are very important in Asmat society. The founding ancestor of the Asmat was in fact a carver who made people and who made carvings. So this notion of the parallel between a carving and the human being, the creation of a human being and the creation of carving is very, very strong.

Death and the art surrounding death are often not about loss, but about transformation instead. What you are doing is, instead of saying, ‘Oh, this person is lost to me,’ it is not that this person is lost to me—this person is being transformed into an ancestor. And that’s a person then who is still present. It is very powerful. To make art forms that can transform a dead person into a living ancestor, those are powerful art forms. And that’s why I think you see so much energy and artistic talent and creativity invested in funerary arts.” 

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