'We are not an emblem': impermanence and materiality in Asmat worlds

Jaap Timmer*, Anna-Karina Hermkens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In most societies in Melanesia, people perceive death not as an inevitable end, but as renewal. This is expressed through ritual objects that are not seen to outlast human lives. Instead, these ephemeral objects give value to principles of balance and continuity in people’s social lives. But what happens when this impermanence of objects is forced towards permanence through pacification processes enforced by missionisation and government policy and their respective projects of conversion, institutionalisation and conservation? This chapter explores the ways in which Asmat of West Papua struggle to reconcile the permanence of this ‘pacification’ with indigenous logics of impermanence. In the past, ritual cycles aimed at securing ces, the Asmat equivalent of mana (‘strength’, ‘fertility’, ‘prestige’), which was deemed essential for constant renewal and averting entropy. In many of the rituals, woodcarvings mediated between a variety of entities that needed to be brought in balance. Once the ceremonies were completed these carvings were left to ‘decay’ to perpetuate ces. Nowadays, the pacification enforced through missionisation, government policy and commodification of carvings prompt people to reflect critically on impermanence in relation to concerns around the future of their societies. We investigate the Asmat assessment of permanence and impermanence to highlight the complexities, existential dilemmas and anxieties that occur when inherently ephemeral objects come to emblematise or mark ‘Asmat culture’, not just in Indonesia but worldwide.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationImpermanence
Subtitle of host publicationexploring continuous change across cultures
EditorsCameron D. Warner, Ton Otto, Haidy Geismar
Place of PublicationLondon ; New York
PublisherUniversity College London
Number of pages16
Publication statusSubmitted - 21 Sep 2020


  • Anthropology
  • Material Culture
  • Cultural Change
  • Christianity
  • Indonesia
  • Asmat

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