The Melanesians including Papua New Guineans produced war shields they used to protect themselves but these shields have a great artistic value. While these large hand-carved rectangular, square or oval-shaped cultural objects were made for protection in tribal war, they are also very beautiful. It is hard to visualise a work of art being used to protect one’s life, but made of hard-wood, the shields serve their purpose.
A shield of the Melanesia is a fascinating object. Many are made from wood and carry intricate tribal and clan markings representing profound spiritual meanings. The maker ensures that the markings incised or painted on this shield would protect someone’s life. In all the cultural objects that come from my heritage (the Melanesia), fighting shields would be my favourite.
From the 80s, I started collecting shields whenever I travelled across PNG. Once the West Papua community had a trade show in Port Moresby and I was extremely delighted to visit and I purchased a couple of shields and a door which was carved with intricate shield designs. West Papua shields, the Asmat, top my list of favourites. Over time, my obsession with shields resulted in over 30 pieces collected.
I have some pictures tucked away in my old computer, unfortunately, I could not find them for this post. Most of the shields from my collection were displayed in a cafe I owned and ran with a friend.
Before we migrated to Australia, there was a feud over lack of electricity and water to a cafe business I owned with a friend. The landlord kept charging us astronomical amounts when we had to operate the cafe without water nor electricity. We lost business and customers. When we demanded to pay less rent (with power and water), we were locked of the cafe. Th landlord took everything, exceeding the value of the disputed rent. It was not just losing $50,000 worth of cafe equipment and furniture, my shield collection were stolen from the cafe. All gone. What happened after is another story.
It has taken me all these years to put this memory behind me. The pain returns often when I gaze at a beautiful Melanesian shield in a gallery or the thousands of beautiful pictures on Google. While most of the best and unique pieces in my life have gone, I still have a few beautiful pieces to make me smile. And I have this book (pictured below).
With Harry Beran, my friend Dr Barry Craig, anthropologist and a longtime serving curator in Papua New Guinea published a comprehensive compilation on the war shields of Melanesia in their book, “Shields of Melanesia”. The volume illustrates more than one hundred types of shields from all culture areas of Melanesia that used fighting shields. Approximately eighty percent of the shields illustrated in the book have never appeared in print. The book has images of some of the best Melanesian shields.