May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The bronze Asmat warrior

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Robyn Roper

At the first Freeport-sponsored Kamoro art and cultural festival, in April 1998, a Kamoro drummer competing in the dance category wore a plaited grass vest with the words 'Pakaian Adat' or 'traditional costume' etched in charcoal on the back. Some audience members, mostly Freeport employees, government officials and invited journalists, laughed when they saw it. The drummer, meanwhile, showed no response to their attention. The meaning of this statement might seem ambiguous at best, but the power of ambiguity in art is its ability to prompt questions from its audience. What did made the audience laugh that evening?

Before European modern and surrealist artists discovered tribal 'art' in the 1920s, few people had shown an interest in the material culture of West New Guinea. Early missionaries and Dutch colonial officials both removed ritual objects from Papuan communities. The practice accelerated under an expanding missionary influence after World War II, and even at first under Indonesian governance. Woodcarvings embodied animist beliefs or allegiance to tribal leaders. They were seen as obstacles to Christian conversion and to colonial government alike. Objects were destroyed, or else collected from villages and placed in museums, breaking ritual and artistic traditions.

However, in the 1960s the Crosier missionaries took a novel approach to traditional culture. They saw woodcarving as integral to the identity of the Asmat people, and encouraged Asmat communities to continue carving, hoping it would provide artists and their communities with a source of income and pride. They encouraged the view that art forms can be free of traditional spiritual significance, and can thus be carried forth on the journey into a 'modern' future.

This approach produced the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, as well as an annual juried art auction intended to foster a competitive spirit, community participation and innovation in carving styles. The Crosiers' success convinced the Indonesian government to allow Asmats to continue carving, and to end its 'modernising' practice of burning Asmat men's houses where carvings were made. Indeed, it demonstrated that traditional art could enhance the government's development plans by commercialising marketable art forms.

Indonesian art

The Indonesian government now began to actively promote an artistic revival in various Papuan communities. The policy was not restricted to Papua. In the early 1970s the government encouraged modern artists in Java to experiment with pan-Indonesian styles by combining traditional motifs from across the archipelago, to create a more distinctly 'Indonesian modern art' reflecting the national motto 'Unity in Diversity'. Artistic traditions were distilled into provincial 'identities', which were then consolidated as part of state-sponsored nation building.

In the provincial capital Jayapura local artists and landscape designers were commissioned to create public sculptures and government buildings that incorporated traditional architectural forms decorated with Papuan motifs. Stylised concrete sculptures of Asmat 'bisj' poles and shields appeared, as did concrete reliefs of the swirling motifs of Geelvink Bay and Lake Sentani, Yotefa Bay canoe and spirit motifs, and the round traditional huts, spears, stone axes and string bags of highlands people. Such a provincially formulated art style is common across Indonesia. Perhaps the most striking example of this appropriation is a large bronze Asmat warrior, who aggressively guards the main gate of the Trikora military command headquarters in the hills above Jayapura. The intention of this appropriation of Papuan symbols and art forms is evidently to create a redefined sense of place and cultural unity for the diverse ethnic populations now congregating in these urban centres.

Pan-Papuan imagery is not restricted to urban ornamentation. In 1983 a joint aid project established Batik Irian, an income-generating project aimed at developing a Papuan batik industry by introducing batik techniques from Java. Despite many operational setbacks, Batik Irian has been remarkably well received. The cloth is printed with a mix of ethnically distinct Papuan motifs, usually in bright colours (initially due to a difficulty in sourcing dye from Java). Batik Irian is worn with pride by Papuans and non-Papuan migrants and used in uniforms for school children and civil servants, ceremonial and special occasion attire and for tablecloths and drapes in public spaces and hotels. The bold bright colours and motifs have proven to be popular as an alternative to imported Javanese batik.

Popular Batik Irian may be, but the government's indifference towards cultural property rights sets a precedent for the unsanctioned use of tribal symbols. Official art developers convinced tribal leaders to abolish traditional carving rights and restrictions on the use of motifs, arguing that such concerns were no longer relevant. Among contemporary bark cloth paintings produced by the Asei islanders of Lake Sentani, I noted several unusual pieces clearly combining both Asmat and Sentani motifs. The Asmat motifs were the 'bipane' (boar tusk nosepiece symbol) and hornbill head (in brown), a crocodile (either Sentani or Asmat), Asmat human figures that transform into Sentani spiral motifs called 'fouw' and Sentani fish. Such a fusion is reminiscent of Batik Irian, yet the use of Asmat motifs by Sentani people for monetary gain goes against unspoken rules of conduct among many Papuan artists.

In the past, across much of Papua, use of another tribe's motifs without adequately negotiated compensation was grounds for retaliation. Traditional motifs were guarded and sometimes confined to members of carving lineages who were sworn to secrecy. But these new paintings were based on a stencil process quicker than hand painting. Two prominent Asei painters designed the stencil experimentally, as a teaching aid in a painting workshop. The resulting paintings based on the stencil were popular and sold well to tourists. It was a surprising development, since Asei artists are themselves frustrated that Sentani motifs have been appropriated by migrant South Sulawesian traders. The migrants monopolise the handicrafts trade at Papua's largest art market in Hamadi, outside Jayapura. The lack of controls on the use of tribal motifs is something many Papuan artists and cultural leaders are determined to remedy in the future in order to maintain the integrity of artistic traditions.

Take control

Other artists have reacted decisively against the homogenisation of cultural forms. Nico Haluk is a Dani man from Siepkosi village, near Wamena. Historically, highlands people did little figural carving, though bows and arrows carved with small geometric motifs were common. Nico initiated his own carving style in reaction to the sale of coastal Asmat art and of the penis gourd as the main highlands souvenir in Wamena's shops. Proud of his traditional Dani culture, Nico carves Dani figures wearing traditional dress including grass skirts and penis gourds, not simply as a novelty or curiosity, but contextualised into scenes of Dani myths and customs, everyday life and landscapes. In creating this new style Nico also addressed another problem Dani face, namely that they get plenty of tourist attention but few tourist dollars. Nico's innovative carving style has become popular. Several carvers are now involved in a Unesco project to promote Dani arts through an art cooperative.

Art provides Papuans with an income to pay for their children's education, medicines or household items. But the opportunities are limited. I visited Asmat villages where many artists, unable to make a living from their carving alone, were away for weeks at a time logging their land for foreign companies.

At the core of the relentless Papuan demands for greater political, economic and cultural self-determination in recent years is, ironically, a pan-Papuan identity that has been influenced by Indonesian government policy itself. With competing stakes in the control of cultural production, many Papuan artists are concerned to take control of their individual and collective identity and prevent its unauthorised use and manipulation by outsiders.

So why did that Freeport audience laugh at the Kamoro drummer with the words 'traditional costume' on his back? The deeper context in which he made his statement reveals more of its possible meaning. Freeport organisers had asked Kamoro participants to keep their outfits 'traditional'. In return, Kamoro villagers received a per diem payment and compensation for travel expenses for participating in Freeport's self-proclaimed 'revival of Kamoro arts'. Did the vest represent what the drummer thought would please Freeport staff in order to receive his payment? Or was he commenting in a subtle yet subversive way on Freeport's attempt to control his self-expression? Just possibly, he was making his audience laugh at themselves.

Robyn Roper ( recently wrote a master's thesis on contemporary art production in Papua at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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