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You Are What You Wear

Reuniting the living with the dead
<H6>Asmat culture<br>New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province) <br><I>Doroe spirit mask</I>, 20th century<br>Raffia, feathers, shell, plant fiber<br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br>The William Hood Dunwoody Fund</H6>
Asmat culture
New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province)
Doroe spirit mask, 20th century
Raffia, feathers, shell, plant fiber
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund


For the Asmat people of Papua, on the island of New Guinea, family and ancestors have great importance. To honor deceased family members, especially those lost to sudden illness or injury, the Asmat perform various rituals and ceremonies. Every so often they hold a great celebration, called a Jipae, for those who have recently died. The whole village works together preparing it.

Relatives make a full-body mask, called a doroe, to embody the spirit of each deceased person. Creating a doroe takes a group of three to five men many months. The men work in secret because women are not allowed to see the masks until they are completed. Doroe are made of fibers from plants that grow in the tropical rain forest of Asmat. The doroe tops are crocheted, with pieces of shell or wood added for the eyes, ears, and nose. The masks are finished with long fronds of grass forming a skirt and sleeves that sway and rustle when the dancers wear them.

The families of the dead show great emotion at being reunited with their loved ones during the Jipae ceremony. They weep and dance with them and offer them food and gifts. Drums, flutes, singing, and bullroarers loudly accompany the ceremonial masks over a period of many days or weeks, bringing them to life. When the ceremony is over, the spirits are encouraged to move on from the land of the living into the land of the ancestors, called Safan. After a final round of tearful goodbyes, the men ritually kill the doroe, burn the fronds, and cast the crocheted tops into young sago palm trees in the jungle. As the palm trees grow, the masks rise toward the sky, symbolizing the journey of the spirits to the land of Safan.

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1. Asmat is in the Indonesian province of Papua, on the island of New Guinea, located north of Australia.
2. A drum is used to accompany the dancers in the Jipae.
Asmat culture, New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province), Kundu drum, 20th century, wood, wicker, skin, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hebert Baker
3. For special occasions, the Asmat paint their bodies and wear headdresses decorated with feathers.
Photo by Amy Fistler, University of St. Thomas


December 2008