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Asmat Bis Pole

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

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.

key idea
A closer look at a bis pole

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 the fertile soil.

The 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 a root of the tree the pole is made from. The Asmat turn 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.

February 2009