Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Bis Pole
Traditionally, the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea believed that no death was the result of accident or aging.
Rather, every death was considered the work of an enemy—brought about through combat or through magic—and, in turn, every death had to be avenged. After a community had experienced a certain number of deaths, they would stage a bisfeast. The creation and erection of bis poles were central to these ceremonial events. They were a means of bidding farewell to the deceased and, at the same time, promising retaliation for their deaths.
Bis poles are set up facing the river and serve metaphorically as canoes to carry the spirits of the dead across the sea to the realm of the ancestors. The vertical section of the pole is made up of figures representing the deceased, while the bottom portion sometimes literally takes the form of a canoe. Each bis pole is carved in one piece from a single, inverted mangrove tree. The projecting element at the top of each pole is crafted from one of the tree’s wide, flat roots; the other roots are removed. It is carved with phallic references, fertility symbols, and other motifs evocative of headhunting traditions.
In previous eras, Asmat bis ceremonies were accompanied by headhunting excursions. As in many cultures around the world, for the Asmat, the head is thought to contain the soul and is, therefore, the most sacred part of the body. Taking the head of another was a means of redressing the imbalances created by deaths in a community.
Although headhunting ceased among the Asmat in the mid-twentieth century, the steps involved in the production of bispoles echo elements of that practice. The maker of the pole first cuts down the tree and then strips it, releasing its bloodlike, red sap in the process. Next, the tree is carried into the village, where it is received with the same enthusiasm that would have accompanied the arrival of an enemy corpse. Finally, after being carved, the completed pole is erected outside the men’s house, just as the decapitated head of the enemy might have been displayed.
In keeping with the notion that the world must be kept in balance, once the bis ceremony is over, the poles are removed to sago palm groves, where they are left to rot. As the poles decay, they nourish the earth, contributing to a bountiful harvest of sago, a staple of the Asmat diet.
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.”
Caglayan, Ph.D., Emily. “The Asmat.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/asma/hd_asma.htm (October 2004).
D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Smidt, Dirk A.M., ed. Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea.Singapore; Leiden; Amsterdam: Periplus Editions and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, in association with C. Zwartenkot, 1993.
Van der Zee, Pauline. Art as Contact with the Ancestors: Visual Arts of the Kamoro and Asmat of West Papua (Bulletins of the Royal Tropical Institute). Amsterdam: KIT, 2009.