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.
|Title of host publication||Impermanence|
|Subtitle of host publication||exploring continuous change across cultures|
|Editors||Cameron D. Warner, Ton Otto, Haidy Geismar|
|Place of Publication||London ; New York|
|Publisher||University College London|
|Number of pages||16|
|Publication status||Submitted - 21 Sep 2020|
- Material Culture
- Cultural Change
Timmer, J., & Hermkens, A-K. (2020). 'We are not an emblem': impermanence and materiality in Asmat worlds. Manuscript submitted for publication. In C. D. Warner, T. Otto, & H. Geismar (Eds.), Impermanence: exploring continuous change across cultures London ; New York: University College London.