The American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas (AMAA@UST) will celebrate the opening of its new exhibition curated by graduate student Natalie Andron McMonagle. The exhibition reception will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, in The Gallery located on the second floor of the Anderson Student Center on the university’s St. Paul campus.

McMonagle will introduce “Deconstructing Eden: Asmat Identity Rediscovered,” an exhibition that  explores the fluid, multifaceted identity of Asmat culture in Papua, Indonesia, through carvings, weavings, photographs and video. Traditional and contemporary works from the AMAA@UST collection, as well as photographs and video by Dutch artist Roy Villevoye, are featured in this exhibition, which runs through June 24.

The AMAA@UST is a collection of more than 2,000 pieces – ranging from sculptures to fiber art to shields – created by the Asmat people. Art History faculty member and AMAA@UST director Dr. Julie Risser, along with a team of faculty, graduate assistants and student workers, is dedicated to collection stewardship and presentation, which until now has not had permanent display space.

“The Gallery allows visitors to see high-caliber art from a remote rainforest region – a place where there are no cars or trucks, just raised walkways. McMonagle’s exhibition focuses on some of the complex issues concerning cultural identity. Products from all over the world infiltrate the area and in many ways people are becoming part of the international world; however, ongoing economic challenges and limited opportunities for education and employment remain” said Risser. “This is a part of the world where leprosy is still a problem.”

According to Risser, “When the collection came in 2007, it was already one of the top two Asmat collections in the nation. The University of St. Thomas has grown the collection appropriately by purchasing works in Asmat directly from carvers and weavers. We have been one of a handful of institutions that have made it to the annual Pesta Budaya Asmat or Asmat Art Festival, which is held every fall. The collection will be shown in the way it deserves to be shown and will properly highlight the Asmat culture.”

The Gallery entry is designed for permanent installations of larger pieces – including the towering Bisj poles, or ancestor poles, and the long, narrow wuramon or “spirit canoe.” Adjacent to the entry is a flexible space where art history students will design their own exhibitions from the collection. According to Risser, “Gaining curatorial experience means our art history graduate students have a rare opportunity to take part in a pragmatic, hands-on professional experience.”

To Risser, the addition of a permanent gallery on campus signifies much more than simply giving space to this large collection. “It shows a long-term commitment from the university during challenging economic times. Rather than scaling back we are stepping up and being stewards of a significant collection comprised of delicate organic material – wood, fiber, feathers and shell.”

The museum is one of two established by the Crosier Fathers and Brothers since they began missionary work in 1958 with the Asmat, who live in the southwest coast Papua, Indonesia. The order of Catholic priests and brothers donated the entire collection to St. Thomas in 2007.

Since arriving at St. Thomas, the collection hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts showcased 72 objects from the collection in a four-month exhibition. And later that year, the museum received a Preservation Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. On May 1, AMAA@UST will be one of 14 sites participating in the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums On-Site Insights program.

For more information visit the AMAA@UST online.