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Back to Features 97

























Asmat men and sheilds











An Asmat sheild











An Asmat sheild











Asmat sheilds











Maisin tapa cloth painting











Maisin tapa cloth painting











Maisin tapa cloth painting











Maisin tapa artists





















ancestor sheilds
of the asmat



by Alan Moore

We piss in the river We shit in the river The shrimp eat the piss The shrimp eat the shit We eat the shrimp

So Tobias Schneebaum began his remarks first singing then translating an Asmat canoing chant at Lehman College Art Gallery. Schneebaum curated a small show there of a dozen man-sized Asmat war sheilds he collected.

The Asmat are -- or were until recently -- archetypal savages, the Others of both western and eastern civilization. Dark-skinned people, they were headhunters and cannibals and went about naked. The warriors wore sculpted bone plates in their noses to look like wild boars.

The understanding of these people and their art has unfolded together with dramatic material and political developments. The Asmat homeland is in southern Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia, half of the island of New Guinea (Papua New Guinea, formerly an Australian protectorate, takes up the rest of the island). Long unmolested in their vast swampy homeland, Asmat art and their society come to our gaze like artifacts, objects unearthed in the frantic ground-turning of the world that followed WWII and decolonization. They were first studied during the final years of Dutch colonial rule. More recently, Catholic missionaries observed, collected and helped protect Asmat. (The works here are from the Crozier-run American Museum of Asmat Art in Saint Paul, Minn.)

Western study and collection, "salvage anthropology," has been inseparable from efforts to conserve these people and their habitat. Many have sought to protect them and their land from the consequences of heavy-duty resource extraction, drilling, logging, mining, exploitative wage labor -- the full blast of modern global Capital's hot breath in a stone age paradise.

"Stone age" -- this odd 19th-century designation from the "ages of man" is a persistent shorthand characterization of the Asmat. Indeed, as late as the 1970s, Asmat upriver had no metal, only stones (themselves imported) with which to work wood. Their sheilds were carved with chisels made from flattened nails scavenged from river-born ocean flotsam. But the "stone age" tag harks back to the earliest moments of positivist "human sciences," when archaeology was being developed, when Oceania was being explored, exploited and represented to a Western public still imbued with the image of Rousseau's noble savage. The Asmat are not so easily inscribed within a Christian universe. Instead they are written into the realm of science as if in one of its own earlier moments, still awe-struck at the diverse wonders of creation.

The war sheilds are carved from the buttress roots of giant mangrove trees by village specialists working in the men's houses. In carving and butchering, cutting down and killing, there is an equation in Asmat of body and tree, of flesh and wood. The sheilds are carried into battles staged to redress grievances and waged with spears and arrows. (These particular sheilds are "really old," that is, Schneebaum believes them to date from the '40s or '50s, the instantly mythic period when head-hunting was still going on.) These battles of the Asmat are not war like that waged in New Guinea between Japan and the Allies; nor even police work as performed by the colonial Dutch. This war is not a means for Asmat to resist "pacification" by Indonesian soldiers prepping Irian Jaya for resource extraction and settlement from the main islands of a crowded nation. Like the head-hunting raids of the past (effectively ended by the early '60s) this is ritual warfare, carried out to restore balance between villages. It is men's work. The sheilds like their bearers have penises (that is, the top part of the sheild is so conceived).

The sheilds are installed so that they stand away from the wall. Schneebaum insists upon their identity as three- dimensional objects, although not, of course, as "sculpture." Within the space of the museum this installation alludes to those who once stood behind the sheilds.

Under the pressures of analysis (like Schneebaum's own years-long survey that separates these works into style regions), the sheild designs turn into blazoned images as in medieval heraldry, highly abstracted glyphs representing animals associated with head-hunting. Under the pressures of commodification, these sheilds first go on the wall to become paintings, merging with other two-dimensional work. The things go up on walls, and the glyphs upon them go up on screens and pages, becoming simply images, clip art to be used anyhow.

This destiny is part of the pathos of commerce in ethnic and tourist arts. But there is a sense in which these Asmat works resist this process in their form. These sheilds, conceived and produced for internecine war, were intended to paralyze the enemy. Now they are turned out to the world. In the context of the museum and shop window, they still retain some of this martial charge. Standing away from the wall these sheilds of the "warlike Asmat" make a type of badge of indigenous resistance.

In part, this reflection is occasioned by the context.

The exhibition of Asmat sheilds at Lehman College is accompanied by a show of bark paintings, string bags and arrows made by the Maisin and Gimi people of Papua New Guinea. Sponsored by Greenpeace Pacific and the Wildlife Conservation Society and organized by David Gillison, an artist studying birds in New Guinea, this exhibition is specifically designed to introduce cultural artifacts to the New York market. The hope is that the Maisin and the Gimi may thereby gain a source of income that will help them resist the economic pressure to allow the deforestation of their rainforest lands.

This commercial voyage of the Maisin and Gimi people was made in concert with their better-known Asmat cousins, and it is intended that they be read together. (The "voyage" is made by art goods as surrogates; none of these peoples were present.) The sheilds of the Asmat embody the pure value of the ethnographic as a realm apart, an entire socius outside our contemporary economic and political arrangements. The Asmat are "proof" that the systems which rule our lives and fortunes are not natural and inevitable, that indeed the world could be entirely otherwise than it is now. Many of us want that in the form of a token, a little piece of that possibility.

At the opening, guests fingered the beautifully figured bark cloths of the Maisin as organizers hinted darkly of homicidal Malaysian timber barons. As the gallery is made over into a theater of preservation, to spend is to participate in the adventure of resisting evil forces.

I do not at all intend to mock this effort. Some in Greenpeace have died in the job of protecting the little-regarded peoples of the Pacific. I spent and glowed with self- satisfaction. I networked and soaked up the aura of dedicated young heroes. And I concede at once that this effort is not ill-conceived. To turn these things from artifacts into products, to hasten their commodification, seems almost necessary to protect the habitat of human and animal alike.

Still, I fear that when politics and business are mixed, too often they hobble each other. Further, the artworld is presently over-determined as a nexus for moral and political imperatives. Surely there is some better way of carrying these sheilds into battle in the heart of global capital than waging primitive commerce.

"Ancestor Shields of the Asmat," Feb. 4-May20, 1997, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bedford Park Blvd. West, Bronx, NY 10468. By subway: take the IRT 4 or IND D to Bedford Ave. or the IND line to the Bedford Park Blvd. Station. Walk west to the campus.


ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.

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