The Asmat live in New Guinea, in the southwestern region of the island (measuring some 18,000 square kilometres) that borders on the Arafura Sea. Their culture incorporates various languages, art forms, and festivals. The Wereldmuseum has an impressive collection of objects from this region, including a collection of handmade shields. Many Asmat objects reflect both continuity and change. Sacral elements, for example, have often been retained because they are important to the Asmat identity and the continuation of their traditions. Even so, over time, innovative practices, experimentation, and external factors have influenced their art.
Most of the Asmat shields in Rotterdam Crossroads were collected between 1900 and the 1960s. Most of the shields in the collection of the Wereldmuseum were made with new tools, acquired from European traders. These tools allowed the carvers to work in even more detail. The Asmat woodcarvers use three colours: white, red, and black. The motifs on the shields are based on natural elements, such as lightning, animals and plants, human figures, and ornaments.
Asmat shields were initially made for fighting neighbouring groups. They were named for the deceased, often successful war heroes. From the 1950s onwards, the art market’s demand for Asmat shields increased.
Asmat carvings became internationally known in the 1960s and grew very popular with museums and art collectors. Even though they were now produced for the market, the motifs and materials used for the shields stayed largely the same. The international recognition is a great source of pride for the Asmat and has resulted in a boom in the production of art.