Asmat Art Finds a Home at St. Thomas

More than 8,000 miles away from Minnesota live the Asmat, a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the dense coastal rainforest of West Papua, Indonesia. Asmat art and artifacts – including shields, spears and masks – that the Crosiers collected in the last half century have found a new home at the University of St. Thomas in…

More than 8,000 miles away from Minnesota live the Asmat, a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the dense coastal rainforest of West Papua, Indonesia. Asmat art and artifacts – including shields, spears and masks – that the Crosiers collected in the last half century have found a new home at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The Crosier Catholic fathers and brothers, who have been based in Minnesota since 1910, were among the first outsiders to enter the isolated Asmat region and have worked there since 1958. The Crosiers collected Asmat carvings, sculptures and artifacts to preserve them from extinction. They founded the American Museum of Asmat Art, and in 2007, donated the museum’s entire collection to St. Thomas.

Last summer, three Crosiers, who happen to call as many continents home, visited St. Thomas to see how our community is incorporating the new collection of Asmat art into its educational efforts. Our visitors were Crosier Master General Father Glen Lewandowski, who serves in Rome; Father Virgil Petermeier, who works with the Asmat in Agats, Papua, Indonesia; and Father Ed Greiwe, who serves at the Crosier priory in Onamia, Minn. All three appreciate the value of fostering awareness of Asmat culture because they have spent many years living in the Asmat region and advocating on behalf of the 70,000 Asmat people.

The American Museum of Asmat Art at St. Thomas contains carved and painted shields, sculptures, spears and arrows, as well as large fiber masks adorned with feathers, seeds and shells. It also includes utilitarian objects, such as bowls, fishing nets, axes, adzes, harpoons and daggers made and used by the Asmat. Works by neighboring groups such as the Dani are included in the collection to demonstrate cultural diversity in Papua.

The Crosiers’ visit started at Brady Educational Center where graduate students in the Art History Department research, design and install exhibitions for the atrium displaycases. Last year graduate students Jenny Maki and Barbara Manthey, along with volunteer intern Maureen Ragalie, produced a series of displays about Crosier history and Asmat drumming, traditional patterning and weaponry. While each student was responsible for specific cases, Maki, Manthey and Ragalie consulted with each other to ensure the exhibition flowed logically.

This year, four graduate students, Josh Feist, Vada Komistra, Elizabeth Henderson and Manthey are working on new installations in Brady Educational Center that will exploreconnoisseurship (how to recognize an individual or regional style) and the relationship that collectors have with the art that they acquire and the people who make it.

Connoisseurship and collecting are particularly timely topics because the Asmat museum received a large number of high-quality works from two donors last summer. Donna and Cargill MacMillan donated many artworks from the Pacific, the majority from Asmat. Accompanying many of the carvings in the MacMillan donation was information about the artists. While it may seem logical for such information to be included, frequently when non-Western art is purchased, the artist’s name is not recorded; having this information allows us to recognize an individual artist’s style and quality.

In August, Bishop Alphonse Sowada donated several pieces from his collection to the Asmat museum. These include very old drums, two more recent open-work carvings, arrows and stone axe blades. The open-work carvings reflect Asmat interpretation of core concepts of the Catholic faith. Sowada had served in Agats during a time when the Indonesian government discouraged Asmat art production. He led the effort to encourage carvers to continue sculptural production and through his advocacy was able to convince authorities to allow the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress to be built in Agats. Sowada emphasized the need to document works thoroughly. Our work continues with Sowada to get as much information about the imagery, meaning and carving techniques as possible.

All of the newly donated pieces from the MacMillans and Sowada will help St. Thomas students learn about collections care as well as Asmat culture specifically, and Pacific cultures more broadly. Some will be displayed in the Brady Educational Center cases or the other Asmat museum exhibition venues in the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts, O’Shaughnessy Educational Center and O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center. There also will be gallery space for the Asmat art in the new Anderson Student Center, which will open in 2012.

Before any of the new donations or pieces from the permanent collection are displayed, they pass through the Asmat museum lab located in one of our storage facilities. Lewandowski, Petermeier and Greiwe included a stop to the lab on their visit. They were able to see objects that art history graduate student Vada Komistra was examining and cleaning. Care must be taken, because unlike most Western artists, Asmat artists do not use any binder to attach pigment; instead, they rub paints made from lime, soot and ocher onto the object. After several years the paint can become very fragile, and cleaning small bits of dust and cobwebs and other minute debris is challenging.

Komistra and the other graduate students are cleaning the MacMillan and Sowada donations, as well as 70 objects that will appear in an upcoming exhibition, “Time and Tide: The Changing Art of the Asmat of New Guinea” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The UST Geography Department also is helping with the MIA exhibition. Stacie Rominski, a geography GIS lab student assistant, designed a map for an Asmat exhibition. As quality maps of the Asmat region are hard to come by, Rominski’s work caught the attention of Molly Huber, assistant curator of African, Oceanic and Native American Art at the MIA. Huber was able to work with Rominski to tailor the map to suit the MIA’s exhibition needs and for the “Time and Tide” exhibition catalog.

As Lewandowski, Petermeier and Greiwe toured campus,it became clear that the American Museum of Asmat Art is bringing departments together, creating an environment for art history graduate assistants to collaborate on collections preservation and presentation efforts, as well as enhancing the relationship that exists among the University of St. Thomas, the MIA and the Crosier Father and Brothers. But perhaps most importantly, it is exposing the St. Thomas community to a distant culture that has a lifestyle and environment vastly different than that of Minnesota. (View some Asmat art from the St. Thomas collection at

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