Macquarie University
01whole.pdf (147.59 MB)

Material reconciliations and power restoration: woodcarving, museums and prestige among Asmat (Papua, Indonesia)

Download (147.59 MB)
posted on 2023-12-15, 00:55 authored by Roberto CostaRoberto Costa

This thesis explores several attempts by Asmat people of Indonesian Papua to reconcile with a rapidly changing social, cultural and political context through material representations and to restore their lost power by reviving past moral models. A key question this thesis tries to answer is: how do Asmat envision renewing and governing spiritual life in an environment that is dominated by geopolitical hierarchies of global capitalism, state control and religious virtues? The ethnographic fieldwork underpinning this thesis was mainly conducted in the Asmat region where I worked with a group of senior Catholic male woodcarvers for a period of almost six months. A small but significant portion of my fieldwork was carried out in the Papua Pavilion of Jakarta’s iconic theme park Taman Mini “Indonesia Indah”. The material reconciliations and restoration of power my interlocutors envision require shifts in ontology, morality, ritualism, and further elements that are subsumed under the concept of ces. This term is a pivotal Asmat concept that, akin to mana, denotes a multifaceted force that captures potency, talent, bravery, pride, prestige and ethical prescriptions. My enquiry into these shifts highlights the eclectic and ambiguous nature of Asmat woodcarvers’ ideas and endeavours to creatively engage with their pre-Christian past, past aesthetic and ethical models, ancestors, and new objects, while challenging the constraints of their realities. As I will discuss in the collection of six papers that constitute the backbone of this thesis by publication, such endeavours include Asmat plans to contrast structural inequalities evident in the Taman Mini by building a pan-Asmat customary house; ideas for establishing an Asmat museum in the epicentre of the Catholic Church, the Vatican; attempts to reconcile Christian virtues with ancestral cult practices by depositing headhunting heroes’ weapons in the altar space of a (Catholic) church. This thesis thus provides glimpses of Asmat creative agency to carve out a position in the current order of things while reinvigorating ces and related connections with their ancestors.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- PART ONE: Harmony Is Beautiful: A Reappraisal of the Aestheticisation of Politics in ‘Beautiful Indonesia’ Miniature Park -- Metamorphoses in an Everlasting Present: Desires, Changes, and the Power of “Mini-ization” Taman Mini’s Stone Age -- Authentic Primitive Art and Indigenous Global Desires between Reality and Hyperreality -- PART TWO: Ancestors in the Church: Ambiguous Votive Practices in a Papuan Community -- Building an Indigenous Museum in the Vatican: Some Papuan Directions for Indigenising Museums -- Museum as Ritual: Exploring the Ritual Significance of a Papuan Museum in the Vatican -- Final Considerations -- Glossary -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Anthropology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Jaap Timmer

Additional Supervisor 1

Chris Houston


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:






267 pages

Usage metrics

    Macquarie University Theses


    Ref. manager