Papua Barat is Indonesia’s easternmost province. Formerly known as Irian Jaya, West Papua encompasses the western half of New Guinea, the world's second largest island.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Along with several other nearby islands to the west, Papua Barat refers to an enormous and complex area of astounding cultural and biological diversity. Some 250 languages are spoken in this region. In the realm of fine art, this is the nexus where Indonesian aesthetic influences commingle, terminate, and transition into Melanesian aesthetic traditions.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Raja Ampat Islands

From the worldview of the inhabitants of these gorgeous isles, the interplay between humans, the sea, the sky, and the clouds is endlessly weighed and measured. In this domain, according to the missionary F. Kamma, spirits were omnipresent and demanded continual placation. Kamma recorded 66 communal rituals that encompassed life's longings, significant activities, and relevant passages of time. The most famous group of statues extant from Raja Ampat derive from a single altar, several of which are reproduced here. They were collected at Mayalibit Bay in 1930. Three of the shrine's figures have raised outstretched arms (fan naggi: literally "to nourish heaven") while others are crouching in various powerful hunkered positions.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Lake Sentani & Humboldt Bay | Teluk Yos Sudarso

The bark paintings from Lake Sentani depict a panoply of spirit figures and enigmatic designs. These decorated bark works (maro) are world famous and have historically been highly sought after by Western collectors. Maro painting profoundly influenced an influential art movement in the West — Surrealism. Beginning with examples acquired by Paul Wirz in 1921 and subsequently, collected by Jacques Viot and others, these dream-like compositions soon became the rage of Paris. Maro inspired Andre Breton, the author of Surrealist Manifesto, and legendary artists like Max Ernst, Matisse, and Joan Miró who were dedicated enthusiasts of primitive art.

Massive and boldly carved hardwood pylons and house posts were formerly sunk into Lake Sentani to support traditional dwellings built over the water. At their finest, these pillars magically portray preeminent chiefs and ancestors. Above the head of the figure, the wooden form of the post fans out to create natural struts intended to lend greater architectural stability to the house. They evoke the area’s creation myth in which the first human was fashioned into being from a cosmic tree.

Humboldt Bay carvers, whose work is aesthetically distinct from those of Lake Sentani proper, excelled in making canoe prow ornaments, decorated house panels, and finely painted bark cloths. 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Cenderawasih Bay

In Northwest Papua, the peoples of the surrounding islands and Cenderawasih Bay have a predilection for creating ancestor statues, canoe embellishments, carved and painted architectural boards, exceptional beadwork, drums, and meticulously decorated utilitarian objects.

Of high significance are the commemorative statues known as korwar, fashioned by shamanic specialists. These statues were composed as residences for the souls of the deceased and served a priestly function as intermediaries between the living and the dead. Diminutive versions of these statues were crafted to combat illness, to provide personal protection, and employed in auguries and exorcisms. The greatest korwar are skillfully carved and embraced by elaborate latticework. The most superlative, memorable examples of korwar support skulls of vaunted ancestors.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Asmat & Mimika

The Asmat and the Mimika carved monumental and iconic memorial poles. Headhunting, fertility, and ancestor veneration were among the driving forces behind many Asmat rituals and social practices. 

Their ceremonial poles (bijs) are massive, complex creations, traditionally erected to follow the dictates of the ancestors. Bijs vigorously celebrate the weltanschauung of a warrior culture based on perpetual cycles of vengeance and cannibalism.

The Asmat and Mimika, along with other West Papuan groups, decorated wooden surfaces to project martial prowess while contributing to a collective impetus to dominate and vanquish enemies. Collected by Europeans in the early 20th century, venerable Asmat war shields demonstrate high artistry. Symbols that call upon one's ancestors, along with headhunting motifs, such as flying foxes, praying mantises and hornbills, were inscribed in free-flowing asymmetrical designs of enduring allure and vibrancy.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Brilliant works of West Papuan art are found in global museum collections including Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Universita di Firenze, Musée du Quai-Branly, Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, The British Museum, de Young Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Brooklyn Museum.

Scholarly insights into West Papuan arts and culture can be found in the writings of Dirk Smidt, Simon Kooijman, Jac Hoogerbrugge, Christian Kaufmann, Raymond Corbey, Suzanne Greub, Anna Karina Hermkens, and Philippe Peltier.

 
 

Spirit Figure | Raja Ampat Islands
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Ancestor Figure | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Canoe Prow Ornament | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

War Shield | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Panel | Bajé
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Female Ancestor Figure | Lake Sentani
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

War Shield | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Neck Rest | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Spirit Figure | Raja Ampat Islands Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Spirit Figure | Raja Ampat Islands
Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Double Figure Post, Chief’s House | Lake Sentani
© National Gallery of Australia

Roof Decoration from a Ceremonial House | Lake Sentani
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Massachusetts, USA

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Ancestor Figure | Mimika
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

House Pylon Decorated with Ancestral Chief | Lake Sentani © Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

House Pylon Decorated with Ancestral Chief | Lake Sentani
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ceremonial Mask | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze | Italy

Lime Spatula | Lake Sentani
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art | California, USA

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© National Gallery of Australia

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | Germany

Ancestor Figure | Mimika
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure Amulet | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Painted Bark Cloth | Maro | Lake Sentani
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Spirit Figure | Raja Ampat Islands
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Ancestor Figure | Lake Sentani
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Massachusetts, USA

Ancestor Figure | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Ancestral Couple | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

War Shield | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Painted Panel | Bajé
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestral Figure with Human Skull | Korwar | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

War Shield | Asmat
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Ancestor Figure | Lake Sentani
Brooklyn Museum | New York, USA

Ceremonial Mask | Geelvinck Bay Region
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands