Asia on the Edge – Feature on Agus Ongge

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July 6, 2011 by sentaniarts

Featured Groups & Artists 2011

Agus Ongge and Tree Bark Painting: The Return and Hope of Tradition

Born in 1954 and a native of Asei Island, Lake Sentani in the province of Papua, Indonesia , Agustine Ongge (or Agus as he is commonly known) is a professional Kombouw tree bark painter whose work continues the heritage of the traditional art form his people have passed down through tradition.

Here, although the cultural art forms of Papua were already widely known and respected in many regions by the early 20th century, the presence and work of foreign missionaries during the 1920s’ saw a period where traditional art forms were regarded as being symbolic of idol worship and the newly converted indigenous peoples were encouraged to cease such practices.

This belief continued until the arrival of the prominent Dutch missionary, F.C. Kamma (1906 – 1987), who being a trained anthropologist as well as an ethnologist, gathered and classified all the remaining art forms he could find, some of which were thought to be extinct from Teluk Cendrawasih (Gelvink Bay), Teluk Yotefa (Humboldt Bay), and Danau Sentani (Sentani Lake).

The legacy of Kamma’s work can be seen through Agus who found inspiration to promote the art form of his Asei Island community and restore the tradition of tree bark painting to prominence.

Thus, living in the 21st century within a community where three-quarters of the population practise tree bark painting along with the cultivation of the land, Agus who has been carving and painting since 1982, is a strong advocate of the art form as well as the culture of his community. To date, he has taught carving to young artists, produced several explanatory booklets and also worked as a liaison between tour organizations and the people of Asei to stage dances and art exhibitions for tourists.

As Agus tells Asia on the Edge 2011: “I greatly desire to nurture and promote the local arts and cultural community here in Papua much like what I see being done in other countries. I feel a responsibility to restore the local Papuan art and culture to its former prominence in our community and at another level to share our cultural heritage with other nations.

“Statistics show that 37% of Papuan society lives under the poverty line. Here, there is the hope that a return to artists and their craft will regenerate communities through the rich potential of a revived art form.”

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