Ceremonial pole (mbis): ancestor figures

Asmat peoples
c. 1930–1940
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General Description

The Asmat believe that death is never natural; it is always caused by an enemy, directly through warfare or indirectly through sorcery. Death brings an imbalance to society, which only a reciprocal death can correct. Death is the impetus for an important Asmat ritual, the mbis ceremony, which both honors the dead and challenges the living to avenge them.

The mbis (or bisj) ceremony involves the carving of a memorial pole from a single mangrove tree. Two or more human figures, representing the dead to be avenged, are carved from the trunk; and the main root is carved into a projection. For the ceremony, several poles are installed in front of the men's ceremonial house. In years past, the pole remained standing until a successful headhunt provided the heads of victims that signified the restoration of balance. After a final feast, the poles were discarded.

Adapted from

DMA Label text.

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