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Bis Poles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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(piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in the Oceanic Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at one of their most iconic displays. It's a stand of these extraordinary, tall Bis poles. - [Dr. Nuku] This series of sculptures are from the Asmat region of New Guinea. - [Dr. Zucker] And this recalls the way in which the Bis poles would have been displayed for ritual purpose. They would've been planted into the earth. - [Dr. Nuku] The tip, actually, is pointed so that you could nestle it into the soil or sand. - [Dr. Zucker] And I love how the museum's display has the objects below the stone floor, so that you can see them planted into the earth, as they would be. - [Dr. Nuku] Bis pole ceremonies were a means of bringing the community together to enable and assist the spirits and souls of recently deceased people to safely depart, so they could leave the realm of the living, and make their way to Safan, the realm associated with ancestors. - [Dr. Zucker] And to bring the community back into a kind of balance. - [Dr. Nuku] The deaths of leaders and individuals within the community can cause this volatile, uncertain time. So head men in the village would've worked out when it was necessary to bring the community together to commission the Wow Ipits master carvers to carve these. - [Dr. Zucker] And those master carvers would have gone into isolation to produce these poles, which are actually mangrove tree trunks that have been upended. That is, they've been turned upside down. And when you look at the projections towards the top, those are actually one of the many root systems that come out from the trunk, which make mangrove trees so identifiable. - [Dr. Nuku] The mangrove trees would've been cut down and felled in the mangrove swamp, and they would've entered the village and been welcomed by the women of the village, as if they were slain enemies. They were drawn into the main house in the village, and the master carvers would have blocked out the initial carved element, and then they would've withdrawn into another annex within the house, where they would've completed the carving. And they are withdrawn from any activity and interaction with any other members of the village. It's a very sacred activity. - [Dr. Zucker] I love the idea that the trees themselves are treated as if they were fallen warriors. Its as if the tree itself is a human figure. - [Dr. Nuku] In the world view of Asmat peoples, a man is a tree, and a tree is a man. There was a direct equivalence. And that plank-like projection at the top is the remaining buttress root, known as the Cemen. It is the male principle, or phallus, of the carving. - [Dr. Zucker] So the poles really have three zones. There's a canoe, or structural form, at the bottom. Then there's the figures, and then there's this Cemen. - [Dr. Nuku] The energy and vitality of that community coming together, retelling the histories of the village and community, feasting together, reaffirming ties with their neighboring groups. All of that spiritual essence and vitality is deemed to flow out through that Cemen, or phallus, back into the Earth. So, after the staging of the Bis pole ceremony, the poles would've been dismantled, and then carried through to the sago palm grove. And there they would've been left to deteriorate and rot. So, all that spiritual energy and vitality that has come from bringing the community together flows out into the soil, so it can ensure the future prosperity for the village. So there's this beautiful, reciprocal, cyclical relationship with the environment, with nature. - [Dr. Zucker] And the Cemen is clearly a male principle, but the sago forest was associated with the female principal. - [Dr. Nuku] Grubs of the sago beetle were embedded into the core of the sago palm at the beginning of the carving of these Bis poles. And by the time those grubs mature to become beetles, that indicates the time when the poles must come out and be presented to the community. We do have in the collection fabulous ceremonial bowls, in which these sago beetles would've been presented very dramatically and dynamically as these things flowed out and people would grab them and eat them. That's very much associated with the female principle, so you do have this balance. - [Dr. Zucker] The carving is exceptional, and it's at its most elaborate at the top of the Bis poles, in the Cemen. It's a kind of tracery, which seems at times abstract, and at time we can make out human figures or forms that are recognizable. For instance, birds. - [Dr. Nuku] That's right, that really fluid, curvilinear carving is packed with iconography that relates to headhunting. So we see the beaks of the hornbill. We see abstracted references to flying foxes, which are fruit bats. So if the analogy is that a man is a tree, and a tree is a man, when the fruit bat, the hornbill, were seen to be plucking the fruit of the tree, there was an analogy made between the taking of a head. And so, these were species that they revered, as a result. So they incorporate that prowess, that figure, into the iconography, so that you're drawing that energy into the carving itself. - [Dr. Zucker] And you can see that representation of vigor and power in the representations of the human figures, as well. They are muscular, they're strong. There is clearly a reference to successful warriors. - [Dr. Nuku] We see this color scheme. The white is a color that's associated with Safan and with the ancestors. It's produced by burning clam shells to create that very dusty, almost chalky texture. The red is produced from ocers and clays in the ground. And the red is a very charged color. It connotes spiritual power. And you can see here, it's been used to highlight the scarification of these figures. And the black is a charcoal, and that's been used to highlight distinctive characteristics, usually in the head and face. - [Dr. Zucker] In several of the poles, the bottom most part seems to be more structural, or at least in one case, is a canoe. - [Dr. Nuku] This element does relate to the spiritual passage of ancestors. - [Dr. Zucker] So we can think about the canoe quite literally, as a vehicle. - [Dr. Nuku] Yes, these are vehicles to encourage and assist the departure of the souls of recently deceased. - [Dr. Zucker] So it's important to understand these poles not as objects that exist in isolation, but as very much a center point to a complex ritual that could gather together nearby villages and extended communities. - [Dr. Nuku] It's really important to not think of these things as static artworks, but really as a dynamic means of allowing and enabling transition across boundaries and thresholds between the land of the living and the land of the dead. (piano music)