Art as Contact with the Ancestors by Pauline van der Zee
Art as contact with the ancestors is a recent comparative study of the different artistic expressions of the Asmat and the neighbouring Kamoro. The analysis is based on a study of the Asmat and Kamoro collections of the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam. The chosen approach emphasizes the relationship between art, rituals and mythology.
Artifacts perform in rituals. According to indigenous belief, these rituals were introduced by mythical heroes. Combining cultural information embedded in myths and rituals with an investigation of various design elements and comparing Asmat and Kamoro data, results in innovative interpretations resonating art’s ambiguity.
Questions about meanings of non-western art keep intriguing western art observers. There are no ready-made and unambiguous answers to be given – every interpretation is a partial one. For the artist himself interpretation is not always an issue, he follows the traditions of his ancestors. In some cases meanings belong to culturally concealed knowledge, not to be shared with outsiders. Yet sometimes a bit of this knowledge is disclosed.
Adriaan Gerbrands (1967), drawing on the work of Ref. Gerard Zegwaard, a profound scholar of Asmat culture, and on his own extensive fieldwork, discovered that many Asmat designs can be interpreted as symbols of headhunting ideology. Gerbrands focuses on what he calls the ‘headhunting-nexus’; a nexus of related forms which can all be connected to headhunting practices and their meaning in the given cultural context. In fact many more interpretations are possible...
KIT Publishers, Amsterdam, 2009