Asmat festival attracts global visitors

A very important event in Papua. Much more important  than a provocative immoral, irresponsible launch of political opportunist meeting in London.

Markus Makur , The Jakarta Post , Sat, 10/18/2008 11:13 AM | The Archipelago

Agat, capital of Papua’s Asmat regency, is famous for its traditional wood carvings which have inspired artists the world over. Each year the Agats diocese organizes the Asmat Art Festival, attracting crowds of visitors to the area.

The local tribe believes that the spirit of the Asmat descendants, rich in art, still lives in the trees as well as along the shores.

The Agats diocese has been instrumental in preserving and promoting the local art for the past 25 years, such as staging the Festival which has always attracted world-wide attention.

Foreign and domestic visitors, as well as art enthusiasts, always find time to attend the event which was held this year from Oct. 8 to Oct. 11.

Among the distinguished guests was the Vatican Ambassador to Indonesia Mgr. Leopoldo Girelli, who arrived on Oct. 11 to see first hand the works of the traditional carvers that have fascinated the world.

Girelli was greeted by Agats Bishop Aloysius Moerwito and Timika Bishop John Philip Saklil, accompanied by Asmat dancers who had recently taken part in a cultural festival in the Netherlands.

As he arrived, Girelli joined a procession at the Yos Sudarso Field, where the event was held. There he watched some 300 wood-carvers from 12 Asmat districts display their skills.

Local people, a majority of whom are from the Asmat tribe, gathered around to watch, as hundreds of visitors from across the archipelago and overseas sat on chairs provided by the organizers.

In his inaugural speech, Girelli conveyed greetings and blessings from Pope Benedictus XVI to the Asmat community in Papua.

“The Pope loves you and sends his warm greetings and blessings to all of you,” he said.

Agats Bishop Moerwito said his diocese had fully supported efforts to preserve the Asmat culture, as shown from the 25 years it had been organizing the Festival.

He said, however, that the diocese would no longer organize the event, but would hand it over to the regency administration and would support it from behind the scenes.

Asmat Regent Beakai urged the local community to preserve the Asmat art carvings and encouraged young carvers to maintain the special features of the Asmat carvings, as did their ancestors.

An auction was held and the most expensive wooden sculpture was sold for Rp 30 million (approximately US$3,300), which also broke the record set from last year’s carving. The piece, sculptured by Yohanis Taonban from Atsj village, Atsj district, was bought by Merauke Regent Yohanes Gluba Gebze, who personally came to Agats to attend the local Asmat tribe cultural festival.

The piece depicts the story of the life of the Asmat tribespeople preparing a sago tree (a local staple) while beating the tifa drum, and people fishing along the coast.

The bidding went on heatedly among local officials, especially between the Asmat and Merauke regents.

Foreign and domestic tourists opted to purchase carvings displayed around the venue because they were less expensive.

Thousands of sculptures carved by the sons and daughters of the Asmat tribe were displayed during the event.

Dances and songs were also presented, performed by tifa drum troupes from 124 villages.

At the peak of the event on Oct. 10 and 11, 203 art pieces selected by organizers were auctioned off.

As many as 92 items had been sold as of the last day of the festival, at a value of Rp 648,100,000.

Organizing committee head Erick Sarkol told The Jakarta Post in Agats on Oct. 11 that the event had been officially established as an annual event in order to publicize and appreciate the wooden carvings of the Asmat tribe which were already known overseas.

The organizing committee has faced difficulties in promoting the event because of the lack of transportation — especially flights — to Asmat.

To reach Asmat, visitors must stop over in Timika and take a 45-minute flight by pioneer planes to Ewer district, from where they must continue on with a 15-minute speedboat ride to Agats.

Asmat Regent Yuvensius Beakai said his administration had been very supportive of the event spearheaded by the Agats and the Asmat diocese, adding the administration would play a more active role in organizing the Festival next year.

“We will take over the event next year,” Beakai said.

The local administration will focus on promoting it because it is one of the regency’s prime attractions as well as having the potential to boost the region’s income through the tourism sector, Beakai said.

“We will increase promotional efforts outside the area so more tourists will come to Asmat to buy carvings sold at very affordable prices.”

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