Currently my specific interest is the art and symbolism of the Asmat people, one of the last Stone Age societies. Study of the Asmats was not pursued in a scholarly way until after World War II, when Dutch settlement of New Guinea began in earnest. It was known that the Asmat tribal traditions included headhunting. Some military expeditions did travel nearby at the turn of the century, but few ventured into the interior.
As a consequence of its isolation, Asmat culture and art allow us to see a picture of human creativity and technique in a true primitive setting. For the past several years, I have been including the culture’s myths, symbolism and striking motifs in my own paintings. This is driving my painting at present.
The religious/tribal practices of the Asmat are heavily endowed with their creation myths. They deeply honor their ancestors, and much of their religious/artistic practice evolves from these beliefs. Their work is invested with spirituality and respect, with references to the natural and supernatural world. This culture’s art offers me the ability to work with a new artistic language, which has no pretensions, which is honest, and which is capable of transmitting reverence and spirituality to an inanimate object.
The Asmat have no written language, though the Dutch have created one from a trade language they use to communicate. The true intellectual and spiritual language of the Asmat is evidenced most clearly through their artifacts. Woodcarvings, in particular, are an important part of their religious and spiritual tradition. They are the vestments of the Asmat rituals. These icons communicate the history and ideas of the culture. They are the only method used by the tribe to create a tangible record of events, ideas, personal connections, structure, and belief systems. The carvings also transmit the culture’s own self-awareness, which is considered to be a vital and necessary attribute of civilized humankind. The carvings are the society; they are the written language of the Asmat.
The organic, mysterious, and transient nature of this art has intrigued and inspired me. I have had the opportunity to examine broader collections of these artifacts. The opportunity to touch, smell, and see the scale of these pieces is as important to understanding the Asmat as is reading the printed word in Western culture. The more I have painted using Asmat imagery, the more important it has become to learn the significant motifs. It is not just by reading about them, but also by touching them; by following the tracery of the woodcarver’s motifs and designs with my own hand, through making rubbings on paper from artifacts in my now small collection and sometimes investing the rubbings into the painting allowing the Asmat carver’s motif and I meet in the space of painting.
Today, only 60 plus years after World War II, the traditional (Stone Age) culture of the Asmat people has already been significantly changed through its contact with the outside world. Sadly, much of the art created by the Asmats today does not reflect the culture’s original traditions. Interestingly, in its original form, Asmat art is not intended to be of lasting value, but is intended to decompose, die—even disintegrate. The Asmat culture, in its pre-contact form, no longer exists. The preservation and inclusion of Asmat motifs and symbolism, once intended to be ephemeral, may be the only things to preserve them.