Bis Poles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nine Bis Poles, from left to right: Jiem (artist), Otsjanep village, c. 1960; Jiem (artist), Otsjanep village, c. 1960; Terepos (artist), Omadesep village, c. 1960; Jewer (artist), Omadesep village, c. 1960; Fanipdas (artist), Omadesep village, c. 1960; artist unknown, probably Per village, c. 1960; artist unknown, Omadesep village, late 1950s; Ajowmien (artist), Omadesep village, c. 1960; Bifarq (artist), Otsjanep village, c. 1960, Asmat people, Faretsj River region, Papua Province, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, wood, paint, fiber (Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

Master carvers produced statues like these when village leaders needed to bring their community back into balance.

Additional resources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Installation video, 2007

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Oceanic Galleries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at one of their most iconic displays. It’s a stand of these extraordinary tall bis poles.

Dr. Maia Nuku: [0:15] This series of sculptures are from the Asmat region of New Guinea.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] This recalls the way in which the bis poles would have been displayed for ritual purpose. They would have been planted into the earth.

Dr. Nuku: [0:26] The tip actually is pointed so that you could nestle it into the soil or sand.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] I love how the museum’s display has the objects below the stone floor so that you can see them planted into the earth as they would be.

Dr. Nuku: [0:38] Bis pole ceremonies were a means of bringing the community together to enable and assist the spirits and souls of recently deceased people to safely depart so they could leave the realm of the living and make their way to safan, the realm associated with ancestors.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] And to bring the community back into a kind of balance.

Dr. Nuku: [0:59] The deaths of leaders and individuals within the community can cause this volatile, uncertain time. Headmen in the village would have worked out when it was necessary to bring the community together to commission the wow ipits — master carvers — to carve these.

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] Those master carvers would have gone into isolation to produce these poles, which are actually mangrove tree trunks that have been upended, that is, they’ve been turned upside down. When you look at the projections towards the top, those are actually one of the many root systems that come out from the trunk, which make mangrove trees so identifiable.

Dr. Nuku: [1:39] The mangrove trees would have been cut down and felled in the mangrove swamp, and they would have entered the village and been welcomed by the women of the village as if they were slain enemies. They were drawn into the main house in the village, and the master carvers would have blocked out the initial carved elements.

[1:59] Then they would have withdrawn into another annex within the house where they would have completed the carving, and they are withdrawn from any activity and interaction with any other members of the village. It’s a very sacred activity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] I love the idea that the trees themselves are treated as if they were fallen warriors. It’s as if the tree itself is a human figure.

Dr. Nuku: [2:18] In the worldview of Asmat peoples, a man is a tree, and a tree is a man. There was a direct equivalence, and that plank-like projection at the top is the remaining buttress root known as the cemen. It is the male principal or phallus of the carving.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] The poles really have three zones. There’s a canoe or structural form at the bottom, then there’s the figures, and then there’s this cemen.

Dr. Nuku: [2:42] The energy and vitality of that community coming together, retelling the histories of the village and community, feasting together, reaffirming ties with their neighboring groups, all of that spiritual essence and vitality is deemed to flow out through that cemen or phallus back into the earth.

[3:02] After the staging of the bis pole ceremony, the poles would have been dismantled and then carried through to the sago palm grove. There, they would have been left to deteriorate and rot. All that spiritual energy and vitality that has come from bringing the community together flows out into the soil so it can ensure the future prosperity for the village.

[3:24] There’s this beautiful reciprocal and cyclical relationship with the environment, with nature.

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] The cemen is clearly a male principle, but the sago forest was associated with the female principle.

Dr. Nuku: [3:35] Grubs of the sago beetle were embedded into the core of the sago palm at the beginning of the carving of these bis poles. By the time those grubs mature to become beetles, that indicates the time when the poles must come out and be presented to the community.

[3:51] We do have in the collection fabulous ceremonial bowls in which these sago beetles would have been presented very dramatically and dynamically as these things flowed out and people would grab them and eat them. That’s very much associated with the female principle, so you do have this balance.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] The carving is exceptional, and it’s at its most elaborate at the top of the bis poles in the cemen. It’s a kind of tracery, which seems at times abstract and at times we can make out human figures or forms that are recognizable, for instance, birds.

Dr. Nuku: [4:20] That’s right. That really fluid, curvilinear carving is packed with iconography that relates to headhunting. We see the beaks of the hornbill. We see abstracted references to flying foxes, which are fruit bats.

[4:34] If the analogy is that a man is a tree and the tree is a man, when the fruit bat, the hornbill, were seen to be plucking the fruit of the tree, there was an analogy made between the taking of a head. These were species that they revered as a result. They incorporate that prowess, that vigor, into the iconography so that you’re drawing that energy into the carving itself.

Dr. Zucker: [5:00] You can see that representation of vigor and power in the representations of the human figures as well. They are muscular. They’re strong. There is clearly a reference to successful warriors.

Dr. Nuku: [5:11] We see this color scheme. The white is a color that’s associated with safan and with their ancestors. It’s produced by burning clamshells to create that very dusty, almost chalky texture.

[5:23] The red is produced from ochres and clays in the ground, and the red is a very charged color. It connotes spiritual power. You can see here it’s been used to highlight the scarification of these figures.

[5:37] The black is a charcoal, and that’s been used to highlight distinctive characteristics, usually in the head and face.

Dr. Zucker: [5:44] In several of the poles, the bottommost part seems to be more structural, or, at least in one case, is a canoe.

Dr. Nuku: [5:51] This element does relate to the spiritual passage of ancestors.

Dr. Zucker: [5:55] We can think about the canoe, quite literally, as a vehicle.

Dr. Nuku: [5:58] Yes. These are vehicles to encourage and assist the departure of the souls of the recently deceased.

Dr. Zucker: [6:06] It’s important to understand these poles not as objects that exist in isolation, but as very much a center point to a complex ritual that could gather together nearby villages and extended communities.

Dr. Nuku: [6:19] It’s really important to not think of these things as static artworks, but really as a dynamic means of allowing and enabling transition across the boundaries and thresholds between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

[6:32] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Maia Nuku and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bis Poles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art," in Smarthistory, December 22, 2016, accessed May 27, 2024,