The Asmat: The Exotic Culture and Legendary Woodcarving Art of Papua


The wide south-eastern swathe of land of the Indonesian part of the island of Papua comprises flat plains overgrown with mangrove forests serrated by many rivers. These plains lie so low that at high tide during the rainy season, sea water penetrates some two kilometers inland and flows back out to two km to sea at low tide. During low tide the plains are muddy and impassable. This is the largest alluvial swamp in the world, a low-lying territory of bog forest and meandering rivers emptying into the Arafura Sea. Here is the habitat of crocodiles, gray nurse sharks, sea snakes, fresh water dolphins, shrimp, and crabs, while living along the banks are huge lizards.

Image by: www.asmatkab.go.id

In such an inhospitable landscape, the indigenous tribe of Asmat has lived for generations next to the Marind-Anim and the Mimika tribes. Today, the Asmat Regency encompasses a total area of 23,746 km2 or about 7.44% of the entire Papua Province. The administrative center of this regency is the town of Agats.

Image source: www.haipapua.com

The Asmat were once best known – or more likely infamous - as fierce warriors who in the past practiced head-hunting following their culture and belief. However, through their complex culture, they have also created some of the world's most outstanding wood sculptures, exemplified by strong lines and design, most coveted by art collectors around the world.

Image by: www.kembangwisata.com

Despite prized among the world's finest primitive arts, nonetheless, to the Asmat themselves, their woodcarving is inextricably linked with the spirit world, and therefore, are not principally considered as aesthetic objects. Much of the highly original art of the Asmat is symbolic of warfare, headhunting, and warrior -ancestor veneration. For centuries the Asmat, preoccupied with the necessity of appeasing ancestral spirits, produced a wealth of superbly designed shields, canoes, sculptured figures, and drums.

Image by: www.kembangwisata.com

Many of these masterpieces are still on display today at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Asmat region shot into the world spotlight when in 1961 Michael Rockefeller, son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared here on his second expedition to Papua. He returned to the land after being so deeply impressed by the Asmat sculptures on his first visit and was planning to display them at an exhibition in the United States. Whether he was dragged down by the tide, was ripped by crocodiles or hunted down by the Asmat remains a mystery to this very day.

The name "Asmat" most probably comes from the words As Akat, which according to the Asmat means: "the right man". Others say that that the word Asmat derives from the word Osamat meaning "man from a tree".

Around 70,000 Asmat, the largest tribe in the area, are scattered in about 100 villages. The tribe was untouched by civilization until recent times. Dutch outposts, missionary settlements, and foreign expeditions finally made inroads into this isolated community only in the 1950's and 60's.

Image source: www.asmatkab.go.id

Today, however, infrastructure facilities are extensively being developed to connect the regency with the rest of Papua. Among these are the Trans Papua Highway development that connects Wamena - Mamugu (284.3 Km) and Kenyam-Dekati (167Km) and also the extension of Kenyam-Batas Batu Road which is the closest national road to the Asmat Regency. Aside from accessibility, health and clean water infrastructure are also being further developed. Indonesia's 7th President Joko Widodo became the first president of the Republic of Indonesia to set foot in this relatively remote land in April 2018. Pak Jokowi, as he is more familiarly known was jubilantly welcomed together with First Lady Iriana Widodo.

How to Get There:

The town of Agats is the administrative center and gateway to the wonders of the Asmat Regency. To reach Agats, you can take a flight from Jakarta or Bali to Timika and then continue by a smaller plane to Ewer. From Ewer, you must take a speed boat to reach Agats. The Mozes Kilangin Airport in Timika is served by Garuda Indonesia from Jakarta and Denpasar. The flights for Timika to Ewer are served by Susi Air and SAS.


What They Say