Bis Pole, Wood, paint, fiber, Asmat people

Bis Pole

late 1950s
Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Omadesep village, Faretsj River region
Asmat people
Wood, paint, fiber
H. 216 x W. 39 x D. 63 in. (548.6 x 99.1 x 160 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
The Asmat honored their dead with feasts and rituals, which both commemorated the deceased and reminded the living to avenge their deaths. The towering Asmat "bis" poles were made for these funeral feasts. The basic form of the bis is an openwork pole incorporating several ancestor figures and a winglike projection that represents the pole's phallus.
In Asmat belief, no death was accidental. Each death was always caused by an enemy, either through headhunting raids or sorcery. Death created an imbalance in society, which the living had to correct by taking an enemy head. When a village had suffered a number of deaths, it would hold a bis ceremony, which consisted of a series of feasts held over several months. A number of bis poles were carved for the ceremony and displayed in front of the men's house, where they formed the center of a mock battle between men and women. The poles were kept until a successful headhunt had been carried out and the balance restored. After a final feast, the Asmat abandoned the bis poles in the sago palm groves from which they obtained their primary food. As the poles decayed, their fertile supernatural power seeped into the earth and fertilized the sago trees.
#113. Bis Poles
For Audio Guide tours and information, visit
C.M.A. Groenvelt, Causuarinen Coast, Hollandia, New Guinea, until 1958; Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen, Amsterdam, 1958–1961; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961–1978

Rockefeller, Michael Clark. The Asmat of New Guinea: The Journal of Michael Clark Rockefeller, edited by Adrianus Alexander Gerbrands. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1967.

Kuruwaip, Abraham. "The Asmat Bis Pole: Its Background and Meaning." In An Asmat Sketch Book, edited by Frank A. Trenkenschuh. Vol. vol. 4. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974, pp. 5–32., 8–9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 20.

Konrad, Gunter, Ursula Konrad, and Tobias Schneebaum. Asmat: Life with the Ancestors: Stone Age Woodcarvers in our Time. Glashütten: F. Brückner, 1981.

Schneebaum, Tobias. Asmat Images from the Collection of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress. Agats, Indonesia: Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, Agats, Papua Province, 1985.

Schneebaum, Tobias. Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1990, p. 70.

Smidt, Dirk A.M., ed. Asmat Art: Woodcarvings of Southwest New Guinea. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, 1993.

Konrad, Gunter, and Ursula Konrad, eds. Asmat: Myth and Ritual: the Inspiration of Art. Venice: Erizzo Editrice, 1996.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, no. 2, pp. 26–29.

Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 50–54.