Wooden ancestral pole


Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

These bish poles are the largest exhibits in the Tropenmuseum. They were made for a bish ceremony - a death ritual that continues for several days. The persons carved on the poles are villagers who have recently died. The Asmat consider almost every form of death to be the result of some unnatural cause that has to be exorcised. If women are depicted they usually appear below the men. And children appear on the chemen, a flag-like projection at the top of the pole.

Inverted tree
Asmat bish poles are carved from the trunk of a wild nutmeg tree. Each pole comprises a shaft that may be between four to over ten metres long. At the top, pointing up diagonally, is the chemen (literally: phallus). This piece is part of a root of the tree. So the bottom of the tree is the top of the bish pole.

Villagers who carve bish poles are known in Asmat as wow-ipits. At one time, wow-ipits used tools made of animal teeth and shells to carve the wood. Contact with Europeans in the 20th century led to the gradual introduction of metal tools, which has affected the quality of the carvings.

Traditionally, bish poles were thrown into the swamp after the ceremony. That is why few of these poles have survived, and particularly no old examples. In the 1950s, Europeans began to appreciate the remarkable beauty of the Asmat carvings. Collectors from Dutch museums, including the Tropenmuseum, went to New Guinea to buy wooden carvings and bring them back to the Netherlands. Much of the Asmat sculpture at the Tropenmuseum is from that period.

The Asmat are a Papuan people. They live on the southwest of the island of New Guinea. The collective name for all inhabitants of New Guinea is Papuans. Today, the territory of the Asmat is part of the province of Papua (known until 2001 as Irian Jaya) in the Republic of Indonesia. It was a Dutch colony until 1963. Around 65,000 Asmat Papuans live in 118 villages. It is one of the wettest and swampiest regions of the world. Always hot and humid. Much of the area is flooded when the tide rises. There are no roads in the region so most transport is by water.

22 x 15,6cm (8 11/16 x 6 1/8in.)

Source: collectie.tropenmuseum.nl

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  • Title: Wooden ancestral pole
  • Date: 1900/1950
  • Location: Asmat regency