By Clémentine Débrosse, Pacific Arts volunteer, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Traditionally, warfare was one of the most important actions of a man’s life in Papua New Guinea. It was part of what distinguished a man from a child and was sometimes part of the initiation process.
Warfare is more than an aggressive event. It can also be a social or ceremonial opportunity for the creation of art. Shields are part of a warrior’s equipment. They are only made by men in secluded places like men’s houses, or sometimes deep in the forest where the wood is cut. Generally, the shield is made by the owner. If not, a specialist carver needs to be paid with food during or after the task.In every region of Papua New Guinea, shields have a recognizable visual style as they are a way for a man to claim his community identity. Shields can be seen in many different shapes and sizes, with a diversity of motifs.
A shield, however, is first and foremost a defensive weapon to fend off enemy arrows and spears: some arrows tips are embedded in the Lumi shield from the Torricelli Mountains region. The shields which hang from the shoulder and which are designed to be used with bows and arrows are small in size and, most often, made from the buttress roots of mangroves, to make them as light as possible. However, tall shields, made out of hardwood, are usually carried by an unarmed man who is accompanied by several bowmen. Because of the great danger, the unarmed carrier holds the highest position on the war field. This man is in charge of all the tactics and so, at one point, responsible for ending the warfare.
In warfare, warriors need skills. As well, the shield itself has a role to play, as do the ancestral spirits and traditional magic. Spirits play a significant role and are part and parcel of life in general, even more in a ritualised event such as warfare. Spirits are of such importance that it is believed they can live in artefacts like shields and also in the wood used for their making.Mountain-Ok people live near the headwaters of the Sepik River. In this region living characteristics are attributed to the shields and during attacks the shields are meant to quiver in anticipation of the fray. Shields, as well as the motifs on them, are seen as embodiments or representations of spirits. The magical efficiency of these motifs is activated through the enemy’s perception of the shield: the enemy knows that the chosen motifs are important and this strikes fear into their hearts as they recognize some of the motifs. Even more, the knowledge that designs on shields are full of magic can alone weaken them.
This efficiency also has a direct link with the coloured design of the shield. According to Papua New Guinean people, the motifs on each shield have layered or secret meanings and are painted to intimidate enemies. Bright colours are used to create a dazzling effect that disorientates enemies. They can also have a special meaning in some cultures. In Mountain-Ok region, red is for ancestors, black for masculinity and white for abundance, the three colours being part of the essential elements of life. And together, they show the strength of the shield carrier.The Mountain-Ok shield can be analysed as follows: the top triangle is a representation of the head and the spirals of the eyes. The central oval shapes are likely to represent limbs and the white triangle at the bottom, the legs. All these elements are components of a human body. The Mountain-Ok shield has all the principles to be efficient: bright colours that are linked with the most important values of the community, and striking motifs that could be the embodiment of these spirits trapped in the shield itself to protect his carrier. With both protective and frightening elements, this shield is a formidable weapon.
From November, ten shields, most of them never exhibited before, will be on display in the National Gallery of Australia. Coming from different regions of Papua New Guinea, they all show different communities’ identities and region styles.