Body Mask (Det)

Date: mid-20th century

Geography: Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Ambisu village, Ajip River

Culture: Asmat people

Medium: Fiber, sago palm leaves, wood, paint

Dimensions: H. 65 3/4 in. (167 cm)

Classification: Basketry-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mrs. Mary C. Rockefeller, 1965

Accession Number: 1978.412.1282a


The art and religion of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea center primarily on the spirits of the recently dead. Nearly all Asmat subgroups celebrate, or celebrated, the mask feast, a series of rituals culminating when the dead, personified by performers wearing full-length body masks, return to visit the community. The rites involve two types of masks. The first, a single conical mask depicting a legendary orphan, appears as a comical prelude.

The second type of mask, seen here, portrays the dead. Each mask of this type represents, and is named for, a specific individual who has recently died. At the climax of the ceremony, the masked performers representing the dead emerge from the forest and tour the village, where they are offered food and hospitality. They eventually arrive in front of the men's ceremonial house, where the dead and the living join in a dance, which continues long into the night. The following morning, the dead, now properly fed and entertained or frightened by threats of violence, depart for safan, the realm of the ancestors.