Asmat Bis Pole


Asmat culture, New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province)
Bis pole, 20th century
Wood, pigment
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund


You have to look a long time to catch all of the details in this amazing wood carving. Its curved abstract forms and powerful human figures certainly grab and hold our attention. However, this wood sculpture was not made for museumgoers to gaze at. It was created to attract the attention and favor of ancestor spirits. For the Asmat of New Guinea, taking care of ancestors is extremely important. In fact, their livelihood depends on it.


Keeping life in balance

The Asmat live on New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, located just north of Australia.

Nearly 70,000 Asmat people live in the swamplands of southwestern Papua province, on the island of New Guinea. Life in this environment is not easy. High tides, thick mud, and overgrown jungles make travel difficult, and the Asmat remain relatively isolated from the outside world. They live off the land, hunting and fishing and gathering food in the rain forest.

You might think life would be simple for the Asmat. But in fact, their existence is a complicated balancing act between two worlds—the world of the living and the world of the spirits. The Asmat believe that spirits, especially ancestor spirits, control the activities of the living. When death occurs in a community, life may become unbalanced. And that can have disastrous results, such as disease, hunger, and death.

To ensure order and harmony, the Asmat perform ceremonial rituals. Until the mid-20th century, some of their rituals included head-hunting and cannibalism. When a person died, the community felt the need to avenge the death by killing someone from an enemy village. Many Asmat believed that was the way to restore balance between the numbers of living people and spirits.

For several years during the 1960s, the Indonesian government outlawed all clan houses, events, and wood carvings associated with Asmat ceremonial rituals, even though most head-hunting and cannibalism had stopped by then. With the help of Catholic missionaries, the Asmat regained the right to hold ceremonies and to create the elaborate wood carvings that accompany them.

Asmat-Papua, 2006,
photograph by 710928003

This area is one of the wettest on earth. Land is often under water due to the high tides.

Village Asmat, 1991,
photograph by christiancaron2000

It’s hard to get around in the swampland. Most travel is by dugout canoe.


A place to hold the spirits

Red Mangrove Trees,
digital photograph by alumroot

A bis pole is carved from a single mangrove.

The Asmat believe that the spirits of the dead stay among the living until their deaths are avenged. Bis (ancestor-spirit) poles are made to hold the spirits of the recently deceased and keep them away from the village. Elaborate festivals accompany the making of the poles. During this time the spirits that inhabit the poles are mourned, cared for, embraced, and honored.

When a village leader decides that a bis pole, or maybe several poles, should be made, the men paint their bodies and storm into the jungle on a mock hunt. They cut down a mangrove tree for each pole, as if performing the head-hunting ritual of the past. The mangrove’s red sap is said to represent the enemy’s blood. Mock battles also take place between the men and women after the men return to the village.

The trees are placed outside the men’s house, and the leader, using an ax, roughly outlines the figures that will be carved on them. The poles are then moved inside, where the carvers set to work. The family of each deceased person has selected the carvers who will make their pole. For privacy, the poles are screened off from each other, and whenever the carvers stop for a while, they cover the pole with palm leaves. While pole carving is in progress, secret ceremonies are performed and special measures are taken to ward off danger.

When the bis poles are complete, food is collected and prepared for the festival. The poles are put on public display outside the communal house, and everyone gathers to grieve for the deceased. After the drumming, singing, dancing, and feasting are over, the poles are taken down and carried into the forest. In this way, the spirits leave the village. Traditionally, the poles were left to rot, so the spirits could enrich the soil. Today, they are often sold to museums or collectors.

Asmat culture, New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province),
Kundu drum,
20th century,
wood, wicker, skin,
gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hebert Baker

Drumming, singing, and dancing are part of the bis-pole festival. Hand-held drums like this are used for various Asmat ceremonies.


A closer look at a bis pole

A dugout canoe carved on the back of the pole will transport the ancestor spirits to the afterworld.

The figures on a bis pole, carved one above the other, represent the recently departed and also ancestors. Older poles typically had only male figures, but both males and females are seen on poles today. A female would usually be the bottom figure since women are associated with fertile soil.

Mia’s bis pole, probably made in the early 1970s has three male figures. The top one stands for the person who recently died; the two lower ones are his ancestors. Sticking out from the top is a large, ornate carving of several hornbills (colorful birds of the region). This is actually the root of the tree the pole is made from. The Asmat turns the bottom of the tree into the top of the pole.

Many bis poles have a canoe carved at the base. On this pole, a canoe appears along the back instead. Dugout canoes are the Asmat’s main form of transportation. The canoes depicted on bis poles symbolically carry the deceased into the land of the ancestors called Safan.

When the carving is complete, the entire bis pole is painted with white lime. Details are painted in red and black. White connects the figures with the spirit world. Red indicates scarification marks, and black signifies hair. Just before the pole is presented to the community, close relatives of the deceased paint the body joints, eyes, and mouth. During the festival, the pole figures are adorned with nose ornaments and fiber tassels.


The many hornbills (colorful birds) refer to hunting.

You can still see traces of black paint on the figures. The white and red paint has worn off.


Related Activities

MHonoring Ancestors

Showing respect and honor to ancestors is a tradition in many cultures. How do people in your community show respect for their ancestors? Do they host special events to honor people from the past? Draw a picture of an important ancestor that you would like to honor.


Comparing Winter Counts

Compare ten different winter counts from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution by clicking here.

A Threatened Environment

The trees of the rain forest provide the Asmat with food and shelter and the wood for their elaborate carvings. Unfortunately, logging now threatens the environment the Asmat depends on. Search the Internet to find out about rain forests and how they can be saved. Before you start your research, create a K-W-L chart. List what you already know about rain forests and what you would like to learn more about. After your search, fill in the L column with what you have learned.

Everything Asmat

Visit the website of the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas to find out more about the Asmat people and their art. Be sure to read about how Asmat art objects came to the Twin Cities.