Sunday, August 21, 2016

Asmat Spirit Canoe

Our previous post featured a large dugout canoe from New Guinea's Asmat culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That one was ceremonial but functional. Beside it in the same exhibit was another Asmat canoe that was purely symbolic and religious in function. We'll quote the display card in full:
"Asmat spirit canoes (wuramon) are ceremonial carvings in the form of supernatural vessels. Wuramon are created for a one-time use during emak cem (the bone house feast), a ceremony that celebrates the spirits of the recently dead and the initiation of young boys. After being secluded within a ritual house for several months, the boys emerge one by one and crawl across the wuramon on their bellies. As each crosses the vessel, he is transformed from a boy into a man. Once across, he is seized by a man who cuts designs into his body; these heal into permanent scarification patterns that mark him as an adult. 
"Crewed by spirits, the wuramon has no bottom to its hull, as spirits do not require a complete hull for their journey. The spirit figures have a dual nature: their outer forms portray supernatural creatures, but each is named for a specific recently deceased ancestor, whose spirit it embodies. A turtle (mbu), a fertility symbol because of the numerous eggs it lays, appears near the center of this wuramon. Behind it is an okom, a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit. The other figures, gazing down through the bottomless hull, represent menacing water spirits (ambirak) or human-like spirits (etsjo). A hammerhead shark is depicted on the prow."
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon), with hammerhead shark figure at the bow (left). Click any image to enlarge.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art. The spirit figures are lashed to the gunwales.
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull on Asmat spirit canoe
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull. The gunwale displays a fine pattern on the outer surface.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Spirit figures at stern 
Turtle spirit figure on Asmat spirit canoe
The turtle spirit figure symbolizes fertility. Behind it is an okom, "a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit."
Spirit figures at on Asmat spirit canoe
More spirit figures looking through the bottom of the hull. Behind the spirit canoe is the large dugout canoe featured in the previous post. Note the fine decorative carving on the gunwale, similar to that on the wuramon. 
Asmat spirit canoe at the Met
Shadow on the floor shows the bottomless nature of the spirit canoe's hull

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Asmat Dugout Canoe at the Met

In December I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and saw a wonderful display of art and crafts from New Guinea. We'll quote the display card in full for the nearly 50-foot-long dugout canoe shown in the following photos:

"The homeland of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea consists mainly of densely forested swamps drained by numerous large and small rivers. Canoes are essential to life int he Asmat region, providing the only means of transportation for fishing and food-gathering expeditions, visiting neighboring communities, and, in the past, for embarking on headhunting raids. When paddling the canoes, the paddlers stand erect, skillfully maintaining their balance as they dip the blades in the water
"All large Asmat canoes have carved prows, and those of large communal canoes, such as the present one, are especially ornate, adorned with images of ancestors and headhunting symbols. Nearly fifty feet long and capable of carrying twenty people, this canoe was carved by the master woodcarver Chin
asapitch of Per village, assisted by other men. The seated figure on the prow depicts his deceased sister Banditis, while the reclining figure represents a young man who had recently been killed by members of an enemy village."
Asmat (New Guinea) dugout canoe
Asmat (New Guinea) dugout canoe, bow at left; with paddles. The hull is very round-bodied. The vertical stripes appear to be applied color, not a natural feature of the wood. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Bow carvings, Asmat dugout canoe
Bow carvings depicting two deceased people from the canoe maker's village
Asmat canoe from the bow, with paddles
Asmat canoe from the bow. Paddles leaning on both sides have very long shafts without end grips. The blades, which are lashed with fiber (presumably vegetable) to the shafts, are rounded at the bottom and square-shouldered at the top.
Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern
Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern

Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern
Another view from the stern.

Asmat men paddling a dugout canoe, standing
A photo accompanying the Asmat exhibit canoe shows the vigorous standing paddling method used. (Please excuse the poor quality of this photo-of-a-photo.)
Below, is an image from Wikipedia's article on the Asmat people, showing the prevalence of dugout canoes in the culture in 1912 or 1913.
Asmat people with dugout canoes
Asmat men and boys in dugout canoes, 1912 or 1913.
(Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)