early 20th century - late 20th century
'Omu' figures are carved by the Asmat people of the southwestern coastal area of New Guinea to bring fertility to the community and to prevent illness. They are important ritual objects that are considered part of the 'jeu', or men's ceremonial house. In Asmat mythology, the spirit 'Joni' (or 'Jeni') whispered to the 'wow-ipits' (master carvers) to go into the bush to fell a tree. Bamboo 'durifos' (flutes) are used to call a spirit into a tree – which will become the body of the 'omu' – before it is cut down and blown at the end of the 'omu' ceremony to release the spirit. 'Piwas' (bull-roarers) are also used throughout the carving of an 'omu'.
'Omu' are carved inside a 'je ti', a structure made of logs, bark and sago leaves, and 'wow-ipits' are offered food during its creation. When the 'omu' is almost complete, colour is applied. The Asmat use three colours in their artwork: white, black and red. White pigment is made from burned mussel shells or white clay and is used to signify flesh. Black comes from charcoal and is used on 'omu' to colour hair and joints. Red is derived either from a yellow mud that turns red through burning, or a naturally occurring pigment. Used on 'omu' carvings it marks body scarification.
Each clan in a village made an 'omu' that was exchanged with the other clan. In the past, 'omu' figures represented father and son, with the bottom half of the tree being the father and the top half the son. They are always made in pairs and today are considered older and younger brothers. 'Omu' are named after powerful ancestors, and men and women are invited to the 'jeu' after they have been carved and brought to life so that they may touch them, thereby ensuring their fertility. 'Omu' are placed in the rafters of the 'jeu' and offered sago and water. In past times, at the end of the 'omu' feast, the figures would be buried so the spirits would not wander and bring strife to a village. Today, 'omu' are often burned after a ceremony, but occasionally they are sold by villagers to outsiders, as it is expected they will be taken far away and therefore unable to bring misfortune to the village.
For further reading see Jennifer L Scriven, 'The Asmat of New Guinea', MA thesis, Wichita State University, 2008 and Tobias Schneebaum, 'The use and significance of colour in Asmat', Pacific Arts Newsletter, January 1985, pp 22-24.
Place where the work was made
wood, earth pigments
264.0 cm height
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Gift of Todd Barlin 2020. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display