Asmat Bis Poles from Southwestern New Guinea


Bis Pole, late 1950s
Asmat people, Omadesep village, New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya) Province, Indonesia
Wood, paint, fiber; H. 216 in. (548.6 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1611)


Indonesia, New Guinea, Dimensions 314.96 cm (124 in.) Wood, pigments, beads, fibre, feathers


Designers: The Asmat people from the South Western highlands of West New Guinea

Concept: The most spectacular sculptures of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea are the ancestor poles known as bis. Made in only a limited area of the Asmat region, bis poles were, and are, created as the focal points of a memorial feast honouring individuals who have recently died and become ancestors. Each figure on the poles represents and is named for a specific deceased individual. In the past, the poles also served to remind the living that the dead must be avenged. In Asmat cosmology, death was always caused by an enemy either directly in war or by malevolent magic. Each death created an imbalance that had to be corrected through the death of an enemy. After a number of individuals in the village had died, the male elders would decide to stage a bis feast. In the past, the feast was held in conjunction with a headhunting raid. Today, the Asmat no longer practice warfare and a bis feast may be staged to alleviate a specific crisis or in connection with male initiation.




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