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A glimpse of Asmat's vibrant culture in Jakarta cultural center

Tunggul Wirajuda
Tunggul Wirajuda

A media practitioner for over 10 years in both TV and print.

Jakarta | Wed, March 8, 2017 | 01:45 pm
A glimpse of Asmat's vibrant culture in Jakarta cultural center

For the Asmat, carving is a ritual and living tradition that is intertwined with their spirituality and respect for their ancestors. (

The row of tifa drums from Papua’s Asmat tribe stand suspended in midair at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta, their slanted angles hinting at the vibrant music they make. 

“[The tifa] is made from the hollowed out part of [the New Guinea Rosewood tree], which is wrapped with dried deerskin on one of its ends,” said curator Ika W. Burhan in a catalogue of the drum, which is ubiquitous in Papua and the neighboring province of Maluku. “Aside from its function as a musical instrument, the tifa is also used to accompany traditional Asmat war dances, among them the Gatsi war dance.”

The tifas’ various shapes, sizes and intricate carvings say as much about the Asmat’s land and traditions as their vigorous beats. In one drum, a wooden crocodile crawls its way up the tifa, evoking the dread and reverence the apex predator strikes among the Asmat and other Papuan tribes. In another, rather more elongated piece, surreal faces peer out of the woodwork; their enigmatic, timeless expressions similar to North American totem poles halfway around the world.

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The drums are part of the Puspa Ragam Budaya Papua [The Various Forms of Papuan Culture] exhibit, which showcases Bentara Budaya’s collection of Papuan artifacts. Held in cooperation with Galeri Sisi, the exhibition showcases a variety of woodwork from the Asmat, which is one of the 25 tribes that live in Papua, along with the Amungme and Kamoro peoples. Aside from the aforesaid tifa drums, these include utilitarian items like ritual wooden plates as well as carvings of ancestors. 

“For the Asmat, carving is a ritual and living tradition that is intertwined with their spirituality and respect for their ancestors,” noted Ika of the Asmat’s woodwork. “When the Asmat carry out their carvings, they not only express their creativity on wood, they also convey their spirituality. While their work portray scenes from everyday life, such as hunting, much of their carvings is connected to their beliefs in ancestor worship."

Aside from symbolizing their ancestral spirits, she added that the carvings poignantly expressed various meanings and functions, among them “expressions of mourning and sadness, plants and animals”, showing in more ways than one that there is more than meets the eye in these innocuous carvings. 

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The gracefully streamlined aesthetic behind the Asmat’s wooden plates is just as eye-catching. Pointed at both ends with bird plumes among them and often adorned with geometric carvings, the plates are used to serve staples like sago, fish and other foods. The Asmat’s deft reconstruction of scenes from everyday life extends to their canoes, which are carved out of whole trees. In a scene reminiscent of collegiate rowing competitions, a wooden coxswain encourages the vessels’ crewmen to row faster and stronger, his gestures conveying the same sense of urgency that his real life counterpart would know all too well. The crewmen wouldn’t need any sense of collegiate pride to spur them on, as the wooden canoes are indispensable in navigating Papua’s innumerable rivers for transportation, hunting, or for war.   

On the other hand, the Asmat’s weapons take on more ominous forms, not least among them war stone axes whose simple forms belie their grim use. “The axes are made of andesite and other stones that are smoothened to form ax heads, then framed to branches with the fibers of trees from the forests,” said Ika. “They are then used to cut, gouge and decapitate [opponents].”

In the middle of the gallery, a number of spears stand at a menacingly graceful angle, ready to be thrown. “[The Asmat’s] spears are used for hunting and war. Made of various woods and stones, the spears vary from one tribe to another, as some have one or more spear points,” said Ika in the catalogue.

Rounding off the panoply are tall shields intricately decorated with ochre, white and black dyed from plants and tree bark. Made of the roots of big trees or pliant, lightweight wood, the shields resemble the ancient Roman scutum in the full length protection they gave their users from arrows and spears. While the latter may be adorned in the colors of their legions, their Papuan counterparts take more inspiration from their surroundings. “The shields are carved in various shapes and motifs, such as the heads of turtles, fishes, or various geometric shapes, all of which are made in tribute to their ancestors,” Ika noted. “The [symbols] also reflect [the Asmat’s] traditional beliefs in their masculinity and [spiritual as well as physical] protection.”

Puspa Ragam Budaya Papua lasts until March 12. Until then, drop by Bentara Budaya to see the Asmat’s bare bones take on life as we know it firsthand, and prepare to be swept away by its visceral power. (kes)


Exhibition: Puspa Ragam Budaya Papua

Date: Until March 12

Place: Bentara Budaya Jakarta, Jl. Palmerah Selatan 17, Jakarta 10270

Contact: ( 021 ) 548-3008 ext. 7910, 7911


Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.


A media practitioner for over 10 years in both TV and print. Tunggul Wirajuda found a niche in the latter, particularly as a features writer. He often writes about visual or performing arts, but just is at home in writing about automotive, culinary and film, among other things. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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