TUNNEL VISION: An Examination of Asmat Shields and Ancestor Poles in Institutional Exhibitions
Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)
Type of Paper/Work
Eric Kjellgren, Ph.D., chair Jayme Yahr, Ph.D. Elizabeth Kindall, Ph.D.
The purpose of this research is to highlight the curatorial voice whose authority
dictates the representation of Asmat culture and their art. Western curators design museum exhibitions to display Asmat shields and ancestor poles in order to construct their own narrow narrative about the Asmat people. The Asmat people live on the island of New Guinea producing ritual and utilitarian objects. Shields were used as physical protection against attacks, and were imbued with the spirit of a deceased ancestor. Ancestor poles were visual pledges that the living would avenge the deceased through headhunting. In the mid-twentieth century, Dutch missionaries converted the Asmat people to Christianity, and destroyed these indigenous objects. Later, missionaries from the American Crosier Fathers and Brothers revived the production of Asmat art, which was increasingly sold on the Western art market. Western collectors and curators acquired these objects, and transformed
them into works of art by displaying these works in Western institutions. Western curators and visitors construct their representations about the Asmat and their art by equating their Western notions of indigenous “authenticity” with “primitivism” and “savagery.” The Asmat, in turn, perpetuated this Western notion by continuing to create art containing iconography associated with headhunting. Through the methodological lens of ritual theory, iconography, iconology, and cultural studies, this research will evaluate four exhibition case studies – People of the River, People of the Tree: Change and Continuity in Sepik and Asmat Art (1984), Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat (1990), Bisj-poles: sculptures from the rain forest (2007), and Time and Tide: The Changing Art of the Asmat of New Guinea (2009) – in order to demonstrate that the curatorial voice determines how indigenous arts and
cultures are represented, to a Western audience, through their tunnel vision presentation of Asmat art.
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Madden, Elizabeth J., "TUNNEL VISION: An Examination of Asmat Shields and Ancestor Poles in Institutional Exhibitions" (2017). Art History Master's Qualifying Papers. 22.