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Time and Tide: The Changing Art of the Asmat of New Guinea
Ajour, before 1981. Atsj Village, Becembub. Wood.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN.- An exhibition of rare material from the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas, opens today at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Only recently available to broader audiences, Asmat art has made an international splash with its vivid colors and bold forms. The exhibition “Time and Tide: The Changing Art of the Asmat of New Guinea” features seventy-two objects that focus on the distinct and powerful aesthetic sense of the Asmat people of southwestern New Guinea and its expression in a number of art forms, especially sculpture, fiber arts, and decorative painting. Featured artworks range from the ceremonial to the utilitarian—shields and spears, spirit masks, woven bags, drums, openwork carvings, and figural sculpture—each one conveying the exceptional graphic impact and sophistication of the Asmat aesthetic. The exhibition has been organized by the MIA in collaboration with the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul.

“Time and Tide” focuses chiefly on two of the many forms of Asmat art: wood sculpture and fiber art. Because the more ephemeral but equally important genres of Asmat music, dance, and painted body decoration are difficult to preserve and exhibit in a museum setting, the exhibition features work that takes durable physical form. Many of these objects are valued beyond their immediate utility. For instance, abstract motifs decoratively carved into the surface of many objects by male artists lend additional meaning by connecting the pieces to the spiritual world. Typically, Asmat women are responsible for plaiting and weaving fibers, although men occasionally create works in fiber as well. Each art form plays a vital role in the full expression of Asmat culture.

Over their long history, the Asmat people have remained little known beyond their area of the Pacific until the past few decades. “Time and Tide” traces and illuminates visual and cultural themes illustrating the broad scope of Asmat creativity. It also explores how their art has changed in recent years, as greater exposure to the larger world has led Asmat sculptors and weavers to absorb and adapt new ideas. Many of the pieces in the exhibition were acquired by the Crosier Fathers and Brothers during their decades as missionaries in New Guinea; their collection is now housed at the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with four essays, including an introduction to Asmat art by Molly Hennen Huber, the MIA’s assistant curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Art and the exhibition’s curator; a brief history of the Asmat people by Bishop Alphonse Sowada, an internationally known expert on Asmat culture; a history of the American Museum of Asmat art and its collection by former director Mary Braun; and a vivid firsthand account of Asmat Art today photographer and journalist Jim Daniels. The book is available for purchase in the MIA Museum Shop for $29.95.

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