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Asmat Art Project: The History of The Biggest Art Project in West Papua

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Asmat and Mimika are among ethnical groups in West Papua that have been creating wooden surfaces such as monumental poles, masks, and war shields for centuries. Through surrealism, those indigenous artists express their brilliant ideas on their masterpieces. As a result, their carved works have reached international recognition that many art enthusiasts are attracted to collect them.

Asmat statues, for example, have been well known since the era of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. Within that era, both Asmat statues and their illustrations were shipped to the Netherlands, making it the beginning of their long-term fame in Europe. However, the financial crisis of Southeast Asia in 1997 decreased the popularity a little bit. Then, in the 2010s, numerous art fans were back again on pursuing the otherworldly wood carvings. 

Despite all the popularity, many did not know that the tribal groups used to create their artworks to commemorate their sacred rituals including headhunting, cannibalism, fertility, and reverence for their ancestors. Also, the facts about the term of Asmat Art Project that were not as famous as the works of art themselves. Read through this article to find out the history behind the biggest art project in West Papua.

The History of West Papua’s Biggest Art Project

After leaving New Guinea back in 1961, the Dutch also left the island’s western half (known as Irian Jaya then and West Papua now) which met its independence. However, the Indonesian military immediately took over the western half in 1963 and it stays as a part of the country until now. Most art works from New Guinea had been collected by the British colonialists since the 19th century. Meanwhile, the works by West Papuans were collected by the Dutch. 

Knowing that fact, the United Nations helped support the country’s social and economic growth through the program of the Fund for the Development of West Irian (FUNDWI). The program was aimed to support some different projects in the area including the Asmat Art Project. 

Asmat people had long been known for their traditional wood carvings which used to be a significant element of their complicated rituals. They highly respected their ancestor’s spirits and believed that deaths are the faults of their enemy tribes. Thus, to ease the journey of the spirits to Safan—the spirit realm—and let them rest peacefully in the eternity, one should take revenge by killing and bringing the head of an enemy home. 

These killing and headhunting rituals were depicted on the wood carvings by the indigenous artists. Nonetheless, these rituals were then banned by the Dutch colonialists, especially the Christian missionaries in the area. After almost everyone in the tribe converted to become Christians, finally in the 1950s, the old traditions drastically declined. It also meant the wood carving practice associated with the rituals had to come to an end. 

The Aim of Creating The Asmat Art Project

As the leading art project in West Papua, the Asmat Art Project was proposed to promote Asmat’s wood carvings as art works rather than ritual commemoration. Jac Hoogerbrugge, a former colonial administrator was assigned to conduct the project with the help of Jeremias Mbait, an Asmat assistant. The two then toured Asmat region from 1968 to 1972 to show the locals the old carving pictures, aiming to encourage them to create new pieces. 

In the meantime, a store was prepared in Agats—the capital of the Asmat region. There, artists could sell their art pieces for reasonable prices. As a qualified curator, Hoogerbrugge had all the rights to refuse poorly made artworks or pieces which are considered too modern, in order to maintain quality. He certainly had knowledge regarding selling points in the perspectives of dealers or galleries. 

The purchased art objects were then shipped to an art gallery called the Asmat Art Depot located in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This gallery acted as a major distributor of specifically Asmat art products. Furthermore, Hoogerbrugge also successfully made deals with hundreds of galleries, museums, and dealers worldwide to promote Asmat wood carvings. 

The Impact of Asmat Art Project to the Surrounding Community

It is undeniable that the Asmat Art Project played a significant role in improving the livelihoods of the Asmat people, let alone the continuity of their carving traditions. As time went by, wood carvings looked more attractive while shields started to be made with no handles. Asmat carvers learnt step by step about how to turn their weapons into beautiful pieces of art.  

There used to be a hierarchy in Asmat wood carving where young carvers had to learn carving a lot from older carvers (called wowipitsj) who claimed to be experts. Thanks to the Asmat Art Project that changed the ‘rules’, allowing everyone from any age to create and sell their artworks to the available store for as long as they met the qualification applied.  

West Papua has never ceased to amaze the world with their uniqueness in everything including arts. With the support of the Asmat Art Project, it is not impossible to create a special market for the art products to promote their value as contemporary art.

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