Asmat woodcarving and relations with ancestral spirits

Tom Powell Davies

Asmat woodcarving is widely collected and exhibited in museums. However, how Asmat people themselves think about carving is little understood. Tom Powell Davies presentation examines the role that carving plays in Asmat people’s lives, and in particular, how carving is used to navigate relations with ancestral spirits. He analyses how woodcarving’s aesthetic features are founded in Asmat understandings of how life itself is animated, and how carving is used as communicative tool to engage with otherwise non-visible spirits, which are experienced as determining the outcome of life events.

Tom Powell Davies recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Social Anthropology, and was the founder and convenor of the ‘Risk and Renewal in the Pacific’ research network at the university’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. He is currently lecturing at the University of Queensland. He has conducted two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Asmat, Indonesian Papua, studying the relationship between customary ritual, Catholicism and the state, from the point of view of the categories of time and space. In addition, he has produced research collections for several ethnographic museums in the UK, Netherlands, and Indonesia. Most recently, Tom has curated the exhibition Church and the ancestors: Sacred pir mats from Asmat, Papua, Indonesia currently on display at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.