Asmat Jipae Masks



 cat mask, jipae, asmat, wicker, body, mask, ceremonial, screenprint


Jipae Cat Mask, screenprint

multi mask, jipae, asmat, marcoux, abstraction


Multimask, screenprint

 gangs all here, screenprint, jipae, asmat, mask, new guinea, marcoux, art, artist

The Gang’s All Here,  approximately 10″ by 15″, acrylic ink on paper.  The figures are Asmat Jipae body masks, of which I have a lot more to say below.

I took a screenprint class last summer at the University of Utah with Andrew Rice and I made these and a bunch of other prints.  Screenprinting is a mutlistage process where you either take a drawing on mylar, or a photocopy of a drawing on paper that has been rendered translucent with oil and use it in a process with a screen and a photo-sensitive emulsion.  The screen is very fine, with thousands of fine holes per square inch.  The emulsion clogs those holes, but until it is exposed to bright light it remains water soluble.  The mylar or translucent photocopy is laid down on a glass table with a light source in it and the the screen is laid on top of the image.  The table, which generates a bright UV light is illuminated for a fixed time and the light that is not blocked by the black marks of the drawing goes through the image and sets up the emulsion on the screen.  The emulsion protected from light by the drawing remains water soluble and is washed out with a high pressure water gun, so that the fine holes corresponding to the lines of the drawing are unclogged (and able to let ink through).

Once dry, the screenprnt is laid upside down firmly on top of a sheet of paper on a vacuum table and acrylic ink is squeegeed through the holes on the screen and on to the paper.  And that’s how (in rough overview) you get a screenprint.

The images in the screenprint are Asmat Jipae body masks.   The Asmat are a people of the Papua Gulf Coast of New Guinea.   Until the 1950’s the Asmat, who traditionally engaged in headhunting and continuous inter-village conflict, had no significant contact with modern western or Asian civilization. Jipae masks are typically about the size on an adult male and manufactured from wood, woven sago palm fibers and pigment and used in traditional funerary ceremonies.

Jipae body masks were traditionally made secretly, but on commission, by initiated adult men in the communal longhouse where initiated males lived apart from the rest of their Asmat community.[i] (much of the text and footnotes here is excerpted from a longer paper I wrote for an art history course.) The makers of the masks and other ceremonial objects were traditionally highly esteemed and known within a community. [ii] 

The traditional Asmat mask-makers  works performed important functions in the Asmat cosmology and were necessary to keep the world in balance and order. [iii]   The artists made Jipae masks the size of an adult male and designed them to be worn by such.  At that size and scale, the mask would be not merely an object or artifact, but a thing equipped with motives, desires and ambitions of its own that demanded consideration not merely as an object or oversized tchotchke, but as an agent and actor in the world.

It helps to understand the mask’s  functional importance by understanding that death was consciously recognized as an omnipresent force in traditional Asmat culture, something that people could not ignore or sublimate as is common in western cultures.  For a boy to be initiated as an adult male in traditional Asmat culture required acquisition of the severed head of another man from a rival village.[iv]    Asmat communities required continual initiation of adult males, as warriors and artists, to protect a village from rival headhunters and to perform various duties meant to keep the three realms of existence, the Living, the Dead and the Western Heaven, in harmony.[v]  As part of continual efforts to rebalance and restore the world, the whole community participated in the Jipae funerary ceremony in which the body masks were used.

The Jipae ceremony served to placate the spirit of a dead community member (who may himself have lost his head).  The ceremony also enacted the mask wearer’s formal  adoption of the dead person’s social rights and responsibilities, served to recruit the dead person’s spirit to serving the continuing welfare of the community and also convinced the spirit to leave the realms of the Living and Dead  and move on to the third realm of being, the “Western Heaven” or Safan.[vi]  After such a ceremony the Jipae mask was moved to a quiet corner in the men’s communal longhouse and not used again.

Part of the to me apparent  vitality of the mask comes from its essential role in the Asmat culture’s coming to terms with the universal human problem of mortality:  What happens when I die?  What happens to the people left behind?  The mask’s demeanor suggests a seriousness, purposiveness and earnestness that demands to be taken seriously.  In the gaze of the traditional Asmat community the Jipae body mask acted as a very real, important transformative device meant to protect the community from unhappy spirits, aid the future well-being of deceased community members and acknowledge the social status, duties and changed life of the person taking the deceased person’s role by wearing the mask.  In a very concrete way it instantiates the idea in Lacan’s psychology of the art object serving as a substitute for a missing and desired thing.[vii]


The Utah Museum of Fine Arts has a couple fine Jipae masks, as well as a number of “auxillary” masks and other Asmat artifacts.  I have returned to the Jipae masks repeatedly on my visits to the museum.  My initial, untutored response to the objects was a pleasant, abstracted sense of fear and mystery.  The mask seemed to possess a power and ferocity that threatened me, but within the UMFA it had been confined, like a tiger at a zoo.  Understanding this reaction has helped me sort out the different ways the Jipae body masks have been perceived through time, both in western culture and among the Asmat.

The initial power of the masks seems for me to come from my almost unconscious adaption of old stereotyped and anecdotal understandings of Papua New Guinea and “primitive” and stone  age people generally.  Papua New Guinea seems to my western mind perhaps the most unfamiliar, exotic or “other” sort of culture on the planet.  That perception undoubtedly has large elements of cultural and racial preconceptions underlying it.   These preconceptions, mixed with historical accounts of early violent contact with the Melanesian people underlie a culturally prevalent western perception of the Asmat or other “primitives” that oscillates between fierce, inscrutable savages and innocent, uncorrupted “natural men”.[viii]   Both of these stereotypes, for their seeming vagueness and assumption of “otherness” seem to provide a grid or compass by which to measure and map, and in some way familiarize oneself to an alien and unknown culture. [ix]

My first perception of the masks was undoubtedly informed by the scattered bits of information I have acquired in popular culture about head hunters, cannibalism, and the traditional Papuans’ general fierceness and hostility to strangers.  Regardless of what I or other westerners learn about Asmat culture, I suspect there will always remain associations with stories of violent initial contact between western explorers and the Papuans.[x]   There remains a perception in the western mind that the mask is a product of an alien sensibility, a sensibility inclined toward the magical thinking of cargo cults, a sensibility that shows an obdurate, literal-minded misunderstanding of the missionaries’ stories of the, to westerners, comprehensible, no longer magical Christian myths.[xi]

The perception of Jipae body masks, both among westerners and the Asmat,  has evolved with western contact and the gradual changes in Asmat culture.  Until the 1950s, the Asmat had little contact with modernity.   At that time, the Asmat territories became a Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant territory of Papua which in turn was and remains in large part an unmodernized territory of the predominantly Moslem country of Indonesia.[xii]  The Catholic missionaries, with the support and encouragement of the Indonesian government, were able to gradually restrict and eventually prohibit traditional Asmat ceremonies by about 1960.  After the ecumenical pronouncements of Vatican II in the 1960s, however, the Catholic Church and its missionaries in Asmat sought to encourage traditional ceremonial practices, while still prohibiting implementation of the traditional Asmat cultural practices that required head hunting and encouraged vendetta cycles.  Through this process, the perception and production of Jipae body masks and other traditional art forms has significantly changed.  Jipae ceremonies are again performed, but more as a traditionally styled memorial ceremony within the general constraints of a hybridized christianity and modern civil law.   What were once vital elements of a traditional cosmology have become for the Asmat nostalgic nods to traditional ways and items of commerce valued by foreigners and manufactured as such.

With the publication of anthropologists’ studies of the traditional Melanesian cultures, and the gradual introduction of western and/or modern Asian culture, our perception of the Asmat, and the Jipae masks has been changed, in a way very analogous to the process described by Terry Smith of how aboriginal culture was domesticated and denatured by contact with European settlers of Australia.[xiii]  By re-presentation in a scientific, anthropological manner or by aestheticization  the masks and culture they have come from have been largely neutralized, naturalized  or domesticated by western thought.  This process seems analogous to my own experience with the masks.    I have made numerous drawings and screen-prints of the Body Mask and other similar masks.  The exotic strangeness of the objects carries through in drawings, but in re-presentation the masks seem whimsical and if not benevolent, at least benign.  In a similar way the traditional Asmat culture and its artifacts, like the Jipae masks have been re-presented in the western gaze as curiosities of an alien,  but ultimately unthreatening culture,  and no longer as a dangerous and disruptive alternative way of being in the world.   Unsurprisingly, one western student of the Asmat culture seems to reports a similar process of self-perception among the Papuans over time.[xiv]  Among the Asmat historically the masks were seen as powerful and fearsome representations of potential threats to a village which needed placation and persuasion, but now they have become items in commerce, used in nostalgic memorials that differ conceptually from traditional rituals.  While the masks still scare small children, they are seen as friendly or benevolent characters by adults.  By a process involving relatively little physical violence or the threat of genocide as compared to western contact in the Americas or other European colonies a truly exotic, “other” culture and cosmology has been re-presented and nearly erased in a way that has neutralized most of its initial threat to modern and western sensibilities while at the same time denaturing it in its own original context.

[i] The mixed conceptual oppositions at play in western conceptions of the peoples of New Guinea is extensively explored in Stella, Regis N. Imagining the Other: The Representation of the Papua New Guinean Subject. Honolulu: University Of Hawai’i, 2007.

[ii] Smith, Terry, “Visual Regimes of Colonization:  Aboriginal Seeing and European Vision in Australia”, in Mirzoff, Nicholas, The Visual Culture Reader, 2d ed. (New York: Routledge 2006) pages 483-94..

[iii]  [The ways natives encountered Europeans played a profound role in the construction of the indigenous people as savages.  Melanesians were depicted as bestial because they “always met Europeans with defiance and hostility” In most accounts the dominant perception of Melanesians is negative—dark and ugly bodies, crude clothing and a savage polity.”  Stella at page 127..

[iv] I remember reading as a child a National Geographic article about another Melanesian culture on the island of Tanna awaiting the return of John Frum, a cargo cult god, who was apparently some sort of American military adviser in the 1930’s.  [“Back at the end of the century we heard that Jesus Christ was coming.  Would lead the Christians to heaven.  Pagans would be consumed by fire.  Along with Tanna. Fire all around.   The Bible says, Come Lord Jesus!  Just about the last words in the Bible.  Jesus never comes.  Then Isac appears, sometime 1930s, thereabouts.    Isac promised John and disappeared.  We never saw Isac again.  John came and spoke to us.  John he speak in many ways, many times, full of wisdom.  We will have a cataclysm, Yasur will erupt.  Tanna will be leveled, the mountains flattened, the earth will rise.  All the islands Tanna Aneityum Aniwa Erromanga will be merged.  One land, one people.  John will return to bring us an era of peace and joy.  The whites will leave.  We will regain our youth.  No more death.  There will be no illness.  Kava drinking as before.  Dancing, circumcision.  Custom will return. .[ Then John Frum leaves but eventually returns] . .  Every day, after work, John appears to these men.  He talks to them and smokes cigarettes with them.  He tell them many wondrous things.  The Americans are coming.  The Americans come.  They give us presents;   Meats, rice, tobacco, cloth, dishes, clothes, apples, knives, aspirins, blankets.  John has spoken truth.”  Rice at 3-4.  [Edward Rice, John Frum He Come(New York, 1974 Doubleday and Sons](see excerpted New York Times article in Introduction, p xxi for an account of the cult of John Frum.).

[v] In modern Indonesia all citizens are legally required to self-identify with one of six accepted religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism or a religion associated with Confucianism.  The practice of other religions, atheism and blasphemy against the accepted faiths are illegal and punishable.

[vi] See footnote iv above.

[vii] “What I told myself at the time was:  This is the Asmat version of the Dutch feast of Saint Nicholas.  It is not a religious ceremony, but a public amusement in which everybody plays along for the sake of the communal festivity.  I concluded that the Jipae festival, which had  been adopted by the Central Asmat people from the Northwest Asmat—where it had presumably been created by some distant ancestors—had in the course of time and translation lost its religious significance and been secularized into a mere popular amusement.”  Zegwaard at p.40.


[viii]Gerardus A. Zegwaard, Jipae: Festival of the Mask Costumes, in Asmat Art edited by Dirk Smidt (New York, George Braziller, Inc. 1993)(hereinafter “Zegwaard”) at pp. 33-34.

[ix] Steven Chiaramonte, Renaissance at the Jungle’s Edge, Genesis, Prohibition and Rebirth in the Art and Ritual of the Asmat, (1998, Salt Lake, Utah Museum Fine Arts).

[x] Chiaramonte at p. 3.

[xi] Konrad, Konrad & Schneebaum, Asmat, Life with the Ancestors (1981,Glashutten, W. Germany, Hubert Fehringer)(“Contrary to Western thought, a basic idea rooted in MELANESIA is that a life can only begin from the death of another.  For the initiation of an ASMAT boy, in concept the beginning of his life, a human head is needed for the ceremony and only through this initiation is it possible for him become a fully valued member of the adult world and to guarantee the survival of the community.  Headhunting in ASMAT is not an arbitrary action against neighboring groups, but is to be seen as a necessary part of life, an activity handed down through myths.” P. 24.

[xii] Chiaramonte at pages 2-3.

[xiii] Zegwaard at pp. 33-38.

[xiv] D’Alleva, Anne, Methods and Theories of Art History, ( London:  Laurence King Publishing, Ltd., 2005) at page 99. (“Art for Lacan, is about lack:  ‘A work of art always involves encircling the Thing.’ . . . art represents the Thing’s presence as its absence, and helps society bear this void.”)