New director helps tell story of Asmat artisans

| November 20, 2014 | 1 Comment
“Genesis,” by Asmat artisan Aleksander Wuru, a 5-foot long single piece of ironwood, elaborately tells the Christian story of creation, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, birth and death, within the context of Asmat culture. Photo courtesy American Museum of Asmat Art

“Genesis,” by Asmat artisan Aleksander Wuru, a 5-foot long single piece of ironwood, elaborately tells the Christian story of creation, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, birth and death, within the context of Asmat culture. Photo courtesy American Museum of Asmat Art

Intricately carved ceremonial canoes, 20 feet long yet carved from a single tree, were a part of life — and death — of the Asmat, once a headhunting, cannibalistic people on a far southwest Pacific island.

The soulships or spirit canoes were used both in an initiation rite for young men and to transport the spirits of the dead to their final resting place among their ancestors.

Today, one of the canoes has a home in St. Paul, and, with a collection of other pieces by Asmat artisans, offers insight into a people, a culture and a spiritual life to students, scholars and visitors to The Gallery in the University of St. Thomas’ Anderson Student Center.

The Gallery is the home of the American Museum of Asmat Art, a legacy of the Crosier missionaries who helped to bring Catholicism to the Asmat people in Papua New Guinea, once known as the Dutch East Indies and now called Irian Jaya as part of Indonesia.

“Rather than suppressing native ways, the Crosier Fathers and Brothers encouraged traditional art forms,” explained Eric Kjellgren, who became director of the Asmat museum in August. “They built this collection, for one thing, as a way to preserve the art and culture of the Asmat.”

Man-sized wooden shields, decorative bowls for food, drums, masks and more are among approximately 50 pieces on display from among some 4,000 works in the collection.

Blend of old, new beliefs

Those traditional pieces are joined by hand-carved crucifixes, a native-style Madonna and child and “Genesis,” a 5-foot long single piece of ironwood that elaborately tells the Christian story of creation, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, birth and death, all within a context of Asmat culture.

As part of their course work, St. Thomas students chose the pieces in the current exhibit, “Museums and Mission: American Crosiers in Asmat and the Spirit of Vatican II.”

The Second Vatican Council began not long after the Crosiers arrived in New Guinea in 1958, Kjellgren said, and the council’s promotion of dialogue with and understanding other religions and cultures played a part in the Crosiers’ efforts to preserve the Asmat culture and spirit in their art.

Bishop Alphonse Sowada, a Crosier missioner to the Asmat who passed away earlier this year at his order’s Onamia, Minn., priory, receives much of the credit for the community’s efforts to preserve Asmat art and to make it a source of income for the people.

“Today the Asmat have gone from making carvings for ceremonial purposes to making them as fine art that’s highly regarded by collectors,” Kjellgren said.

Available for tours, talks

There are stories behind the making of, purpose for and preservation of all the works in the American Museum of Asmat Art collection at St. Thomas, and Kjellgren is an animated storyteller who leads tours and does talks about the collection for groups.

He brings a deep knowledge of the art of the Pacific Islands to the museum director’s post, having worked for 15 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, most recently as associate curator for Oceanic art.

His book, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” frequently is used as a textbook in courses, and he’ll be teaching several art courses in the spring semester, including one on the art of the Pacific.

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Category: Faith and Culture

  • Julie Risser

    Weird and unsettling to see the term “artisan” applied to Wuru – he is a recognized artist and this sculpture is so powerful. Applying “artisan” to describe the people who created the works in this collection is particularly troubling. It makes it appear the pieces are not “fine art.” Didn’t art historians stop using the classifications of craft, artisan, and fine art to separate art forms from specific cultures back in the 80s? Historically these terms have been biased toward Western male artists….