Etsjopok avenging the ancestors. The Asmat bisj poles and a proposal for a morphological method

Etsjopok avenging the ancestors. The Asmat bisj poles and a proposal for a morphological method

Craig, Barry

Etsjopok avenging the ancestors. The Asmat bisj poles and a proposal for a morphological method.

By Pauline van der Zee.

Working Papers in Ethnic Art No.8, Department of Ethnic Art, University of Ghent, Belgium. 1996. Pp. 84.

Price 400 BEF (+70 BEF postage).

This publication is a reworked section of van der Zee’s Art History thesis on Asmat bisj poles. The first 30 pages is a useful summary of published material on bisj poles, with the bonus of previously unpublished information obtained by the author through personal communication with Father Gerard Zegwaard, the noted authority on Asmat culture and first publisher of Asmat bisj poles. In particular, the belief that the poles are carved from mangrove is corrected; they are carved from wild nutmeg.

The myths and rites of the bisj cult and the cultural significance of the bisj poles are competently explained. The author states that: `the meaning of the bisj pole should be sought in underlying universal ideas such as the principles of balance and inversion, and complementary components like life and death, masculinity and femininity’ (p.8).

Of particular ethnographic interest is the reason for organising a bisj feast (p.19): `When due to certain circumstances the community’s life force has diminished, people consider the time right to organize a bisj feast. In that way they wish to reopen contact with the ancestors in safan to assure new physical and spiritual forces. The feast is organized for several deceased at the same time’ .This recalls the practice of malagan on New Ireland, and end-of-mourning rituals among the people of the Lower Sepik-Ramu region, in Papua New Guinea.

The second part of the paper (pp.31-75) consists of a morphological analysis of the sculptural form of bisj poles in an aftempt to develop a terminology which is objective and can be applied to any sculptural material. `The vocabulary is based on terms from descriptive anatomy and from basic geometry…’ (p.8). This section is doggedly systematic in the art historical manner but whilst not exciting to read is nonetheless a timely antidote to the highly subjective. waffly stylistic analyses often provided for tribal material. On the other hand it is arguable that a few good photographs and some carefully-worded comparisons would render the verbal morphological analysis unnecessary.

The 173 notes are listed at the end (pp.76-79) which I found a bit of a nuisance as almost all of them are references which could have been kept in the text. Most of the village names on the first map are unreadable but the second map is somewhat more satisfactory and would have been sufficient. However, I could not find Japtambor (p.15), although it may be equivalent to Dartambor, nor Pirien, despite the referral to Map 2.

In the Bibliography, `People 1989′ appears not to refer to an author; the Renselaar reference is repeated three times; and single-authored and multiauthored works are incorrectly sequenced.

Despite the minor flaws, this publication is quite useful for students of Pacific art and material culture and for museum curators who have Asmat material in their collections.

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Jun 1997

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