Bisj poles of the Asmat from West Papua

One of the largest swamps in the world in Western New Guinea is home to an ancient people group, the Asmat. Surrounded by rich vegetation and many rivers, the Asmat are known for their impressive wood carvings and associated rituals. Each wooden creation tells a story about their rich culture and deep connection with nature. Perhaps the most striking expression of Asmat art are the imposing bisj poles. These intriguing wooden monuments serve not only as masterpieces of craftsmanship, but also as symbols of the spiritual bond with ancestors and the power of the supernatural. What exactly do bisj poles symbolize, how are they made and what do you see depicted on them? We wrote a short description of these fascinating carvings.

What do you see?

Bisj poles are carvings that are meters high. They often have light colors and are usually painted with white lime and red ocher. A flag-shaped protrusion can be seen at the top of the pole. The pole consists of several human figures placed on top of each other. Sometimes the human figures are placed upright and - in some cases - backwards or upside down. The protrusion at the top represents the phallus, this part is also called tsjémen . It often features smaller human figures and uses repeated motifs. The open style of wood carving is also called ajour .

How are they made?

Bishpoles are made by the Asmat people. The Asmat are well-known woodcarvers in the Pacific region. Wood carving for ceremonies and rituals is considered an honorable task by the Asmat. It is performed by so-called wow-ipits , master woodcarvers. [1] The bisj poles are made from mangrove trees such as wild nutmeg trees. [2] The projections at the top are the shelf roots of the tree. So it is actually the trunk of the tree upside down.

What is the symbolism behind the bisj poles?

Asmat also means wood people. In the Asmat origin myth, humans were created from wood, emphasizing the deep connection to nature and the spiritual in their cultural identity. [3] In this fascinating origin myth, creator Fumeripitch brought a wooden figure to life. [4] After this figure was brought to life, he cut himself into pieces and from each piece a man was created.

The Asmat honor their ancestors every year during the Bish festival. The Bisj festival is an elaborate ritual that can last from weeks to months. During such a festival there is singing and dancing and various ceremonies take place. The central focus is on cutting the Bisj pole, which is also called the ancestor pole or spirit pole. [5] The human figures represent the people in their community who died that year. The word bish is derived from mbi , which means spirit or ghost of the dead. The completion of the poles marks the end of the festival.

The bisj poles made during the festival are intended to honor and commemorate the spirits of deceased relatives. The poles serve as a connection between the living and the dead. The ritual festival is also intended to ensure that the dead can travel to the afterlife (Safan), so that their spirits are not left to wander the earth.

In the traditional worldview of the Asmat, there is a balance between life and death. By celebrating the dead, they also welcome new life. This is called the continuity principle. This philosophy around life force plays a major role in the worldview of the Asmat. [6] The phallus at the top of the pole symbolizes fertility and the hope of new life to restore balance. It also symbolizes fertility in terms of nutrition. This is also practically reflected in the fact that after the last night of the Bisj festival, the Asmat leave the poles in the sago palm groves, where they decay and provide a supernatural breeding ground. [7] The sago palm groves are the main food source for the Asmat.

bisjpalen Rootz Gallery

The two bisj poles of Rootz Gallery. The left one has been sold.

The bisj poles of Rootz Gallery

Originally, the poles were left in the forest after the Bish festival where they were returned to the earth. However, shortly after World War II, missionaries and museums began collecting the poles. [8] Rootz Gallery has had six bisj poles in its collection, of which one currently remains. This comes from the collection of Mr Fons Schobbers. Fons Schobbers made the journey from the Netherlands to Papua in a large ship in the 1990s. He was fascinated by the Asmat and their cultural heritage. From the ship he sailed into the Asmat area with smaller boats and, in good consultation with the Asmat, bought a large amount of stuff at a fair price.

You can also find bisj poles in museums, such as the Wereldmuseum Amsterdam (formerly Tropenmuseum), Musée du quai Branly in Paris and in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Recommended reading
  • Rockefeller, Michael Clark. The Asmat of New Guinea: The Journal of Michael Clark Rockefeller , edited by Adrianus Alexander Gerbrands. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1967.
  • Kuruwaip, Abraham. “The Asmat Bis Pole: Its Background and Meaning.” In An Asmat Sketch Book , edited by Frank A. Trenkenschuh. Full. full. 4. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974, pp. 5–32, 8–9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 20.
  • Konrad, Gunter, Ursula Konrad, and Tobias Schneebaum. Asmat: Life with the Ancestors: Stone Age Woodcarvers in our Time . Glashütten: F. Brückner, 1981.
  • Schneebaum, Tobias. Asmat Images from the Collection of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress . Agats, Indonesia: Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, Agats, Papua Province, 1985.
  • Schneebaum, Tobias. Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat . Salem, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1990, p. 70.
  • Smidt, Dirk AM, ed. Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea . Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology, 1993.
  • Konrad, Gunter, and Ursula Konrad, eds. Asmat: Myth and Ritual: The Inspiration of Art . Venice: Erizzo Editrice, 1996.


[1] A book on this specific subject: Adrian A. Gerbrands, Wow-Ipits: Eight Asmat Woodcarvers of New Guinea (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1967).

[2] Pauline van der Zee, Bisj-palen: A forest of magical images, (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2007), 21.

[3] Tobias Schneebaum, Asmat Images: From the Collection of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress (Agats: Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, 1985), 9.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Pauline van der Zee, Bisj-palen: A forest of magical images, (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2007), 17.

[6] Pauline van der Zee, Bisj-palen: A forest of magical images , (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2007), 18.

[7] Metropolitan Museum, “Bis Pole,” .

[8] Dirk AM Smidt, Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea (Clarendon, Vermond (USA): Tuttle Publishing, 2012), 24.

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