The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat people; Oceanic, Irian Jaya (New Guinea), between the Asewetsj and Siretsj rivers
Wood, lime, charcoal, ocher, and fiber
18 ft. (548.6 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection
Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller
Acquired in 1979
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979. (1979.206.1611)
These 15-foot-high wooden poles come from the Asmat people of New Guinea in the South Pacific. Carved from mangrove trees, bis poles (pronounced "bis") were used in ritual feasts and to honor the dead.
The elements on the poles recall many aspects of Asmat religion and mythology. Images of ancestors are carved as crouching figures, a style found in much Oceanic art. The canoe near the foot of the pole is reminiscent of the "soul ship," a ceremonial canoe intended to take the souls of the dead away from the villages. The large phallus-like carvings near the top of the pole are fertility symbols and are also found in the soul ships.
Ritual surrounds all aspects of the bis pole. The Asmat believed that when even one person died, the world was put "out of balance." After several people in the village had died, the balance could only be set right through a head hunt, which began with the killing of one or more mangrove trees. One root from each tree would be preserved, and the trunks would be presented to a village artist, who in turn created the elaborate pole (or poles). The poles were displayed at the bis ceremony, which preceded a head hunt. After the hunt, the heads of the victims were displayed on the poles before the culminating fertility feast took place. Once balance between life and death was restored, the poles were planted in a swamp, where they were thought to transmit power to the neighboring palm trees.
The nine bis poles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were collected by Michael Rockefeller during an expedition to New Guinea in 1961. They form the centerpiece of the Met's Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas Department, which comprises 11,000 objects spanning 4,000 years. The bis poles are on permanent display in the museum's Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.
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