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  • Church and the ancestors: Sacred pir mats from Asmat, Papua, Indonesia

    A new exhibition focusing on Papuan Christianity and its ritual material culture opened at MAA on 3 December 2020.  It features a large Christmas mat (pir natal) made by the Keenok women of Sawa Erma, Asmat, for the Museum.

    An on-line tour of the exhibition is available at the University of Cambridge Museums Youtube channel

    Ravaela Ep directs Virginia Tómbair and Bibiana Kákan in the painting of a pir mat for the museum. Photo by Tom Powell Davies, 2018
    Pir natal (Christmas mat) showing Mary giving birth in a traditional Asmat forest camp. Collected by Tom Powell Davies in 2018.  MAA 2020.15 

    Indigenous people around the world have responded to missionary religion in different ways. This exhibition tells the story of how Asmat people of Papua, Indonesia, have transformed Catholicism in accordance with their ancestral ritual life. 

    For generations, Asmat people have negotiated relationships with their ancestors, and with each other, through cycles of ritual. Since the 1970s, Asmat people have reshaped their church practices around cycles of ritual feasting, creating innovative forms of material culture that mediate between ancestral spirits and a Catholic God. This exhibition looks at how indigenous feasts have been taken up to celebrate Christmas and other Christian festivals. While Asmat men’s ritual arts, in the form of woodcarving, are widely held in museums, women’s fibre work – the focus of this exhibition – is rarely seen outside the region.

    This collection of Asmat church arts was made specially for the museum by Keenok women of Sawa Erma, commissioned by Cambridge-based student Tom Powell Davies as part of his doctoral field research (2017-18). 

    Church and the ancestors will close in September 2021 


    Church and the Ancestors: Sacred pir mats from Asmat, Papua, Indonesiais curated by Tom Powell Davies and Sophie Hopmeier with the assistance of Anita Herle.

    The museum is grateful to the women of Sawa Erma: Eva Tórasimé, Ravaela Ep, Balbina Bám, Monika Mándepók, Maricé Tótinakáp, Bibiana Kákan, Virginia Tómbair, Monika Tótirú, Kasparlina Tóyakas, and Fitalia Tóparamók. Thanks also to Fr. Vince Cole (MM), Bishop Aloysius Murwito (OFM), Marcus Mbes, Adam Ndo, Rufus Satí, Vincent Túman, Panahan Parapat, the Parish of Sawa Erma, the Agats-Asmat Diocese, Roy Villevoye, Paul Hopmeier, Nick Stanley, Martin Brown, and Sarah Faulks. 

    Technical and conservation support was provided by Rachel Hand, Kirstie Williams, Matt Buckley, Mark Hazelgrove, Bob Bourne, and Adrian Newman. Graphic design by Deborah Wickham and photography by Jocelyne Dudding. Thanks also to Helen Alderson and Sarah-Jane Harknett. 

    Support for the collection of new material for the Museum was provided by the Crowther-Beynon Fund, MAA, University of Cambridge. Doctoral research was supported by the University Fieldwork Fund, the Evans Fund, the Wyse Fund, the Richards Fund and the Anthony Wilkins Fund. 

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