MAY 10 - JUNE 23, 2012
New Guinea is the remotest region of the world from Europe, and was the last area to be explored, mapped and colonized by the European powers of the 19th Century. Even up to the 1960’s “uncontacted” groups were being discovered. The shields in this exhibition are from New Guinea and surrounding islands; they are not shields of long ago, but a mere three or four generations old, that reflect form, function and images that are fully enmeshed in their cultural pre-history. These shields are functional objects that protect the life of the warrior in battle, but also so much more; they connect to the ancestral and spirit world of these cultures and may contain much of the essential information that is incorporated in other ritual objects that have traditionally been considered more central and of key importance in ritual.
These decorations could reflect both natural and hidden forces – that often give shields magic or mystical qualities. It is necessary to look beyond the surface decorations to the concepts, symbolism and mythology of these different societies who make and use shields, to understand the reasons for the decoration.
Rock shelters in various regions of the New Guinea Highlands have been painted since pre-historic times. Some of the ancient designs on the walls of the Kafiavana Caves in the Eastern Highlands can be named and identified by present day custodians; other designs they say have no meaning, or, at least, the meaning is unknown. And until recently when shields are painted for tribal warfare, warriors referred to these designs when decorating their shields, and also tapa cloth paintings. Shields, it shall be seen, were often used for wider spiritual / ceremonial purposes than solely in warfare.
The shield is much more than simply a protective fighting object. Ancestor faces and figures, totems of fauna and flora and the natural world, references to headhunting rituals, as motifs used on these shields, show their multidimensional aspects, especially protective powers beyond the battlefield. In some Melanesian cultures the shields, with their painted and/or carved designs can be equate to ancestor or spirit; in others this connection is not explicit, and the shields are stored away between wars, only to be “refreshed” each time through the process of re-painting, magic spells and other rituals which heightens the protective power of the shield and the warrior. But always it is the
ever-present ancestors or spirits that bestow this power on both.
- Excerpts taken from catalog “New Guinea Shields – Animated by Spirits” by Chris Boylan