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Bis Poles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Video transcript

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 bish poles this series of sculptures are from the Asmat region of New Guinea and this recalls the way in which the bish poles would have been displayed for ritual purpose they would have been planted into the earth tip actually is pointed so that you could nestled it into the soil or sand and I love how the museum's display it has the objects below the stone floor so you can see them planted into the earth as they would be beech 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 Sutphin the realm associated with ancestors and to bring the community back into a kind of balance the deaths of leaders and individuals within the community can cause this volatile uncertain time so head men in the village would have worked out when it was necessary to bring the community together to commission the while we pitch master Carver's to carve these and those master Carver's would have gone into isolation to produce these poles which are actually mangrove tree trunks that have been upended that as 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 identifying the mangrove trees would have been cut down and felled in the mangrove swamp and they would have 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in the village and the master Carver's would have blocked out the initial carved elements and then they would have withdrawn into another annex within the house where they would have completed the carving and they are withdrawn from any activity and interaction with any other members of the village it's a very sacred activity I love the idea that the trees themselves are treated as if they were fallen warriors it's as if the tree itself is a human figure and the worldview of us let people's 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 chairman it is the male principle or phallus of the carving so the poles really have three zones there is a canoe or structural form at the bottom then there's the figures and then there's this chairman 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 jimin or phallus back into the earth so after the staging of the beach pole ceremony the poles would have been dismantled and then carried through to the sago palm grove and there they would have 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 and cyclical relationship with the environment with nature and the treatment is clearly a male principle but the sago forest was associated with a female principal grubs of the sago beetle were embedded into the core of the sago palm at the beginning of the carving of these beach 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 have 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 the carving is exceptional and it's at its most elaborate at the top of the beech poles in the chamber it's a kind of tracery which seems at times abstract and at times we can make out human figures or forms that are recognizable for instance birds that's right that really fluid curvilinear carving is packed with iconography that relates to hunting so we see the beaks of the hornbill we see abstracted references to flying foxes which have fruit backs so if the analogy is that a man is a tree and the 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 overhead and so these were species that they revered as a result so they incorporate that powers that vigor into that iconography so that you're drawing that energy into the carving itself 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 reference to successful warriors we see this color scheme the white is a color that's associated with Safin and with their ancestors it's produced by burning clam shells to create that very dusty almost chalky texture the red is produced from okis and clays in the ground and the red is with a charged color it connotes spiritual power and you can see here it's been used to highlight 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 in several of the polls the bottom most part seems to be more structural or at least in one case is a canoe this element does relate to the spiritual passage of ancestors so we can think about the canoe quite literally as a vehicle yes these are vehicles to encourage and assist the departure of the souls of recently deceased so it's important to understand these poles not as objects that exist in isolation but has very much a center point to a complex ritual that could gather together nearby villages and extended communities 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 you