Papua New Guinea Highland : War Shields

23 January - 31 March 2023

It was in the 1930’s that a group of Australian mining prospectors first ventured inland, to the vast mountainous areas of the New Guinea highlands region. Here they encountered remote verdant valleys and to mutual amazement of all, a population of approximately 1 million locals, scattered throughout hundreds of villages.

The Australians had no idea of their existence and the local inhabitants had never encountered other people, let alone beings with pale skin colour—a fact that probably saved the visitors—who they thought might be the spirits of the dead.

Prospectors were followed by explorers, scientitists - naturalists and anthropologgists: all curious about the discovery of things that had never beeen seen before. The New Guinea highlanders existed in a stone-age culture that hadn’t changed much in thousands of years. They dressed from nature, with pelts, fibres, flowers and feathers and were all farmers, hunters as well as fierce warriors.

Tribal rivalry and warfare between the many clans existing in the highlands was commonplace and to defend themselves from arrows and stone-headed clubs used in battle, the men carved and decorated large scale war shields. The proccess, beginning with the selection and felling of a tree, was long and laborious, and the final work would be to decorate each shield with natural pigments and abstract patterns that would help identify the owner as well as protect them.

Artists, collectors and historians alike have marvelled at the harsh beauty of these archaic shields - so primordial in spirit but often displaying designs of great modernity and skilled dynamics. Abstract designs that are inspired by the surrrounding nature and cosmos.

The fine selection presented here are all old and totally traditional examples wth historical provenance and importance. Some predate the “first contact” period and all represent the authentic nature of the proud warriors that used them. The battle scars that are clearly visible on most, are testimony to a long and harsh life of use in warfare. 10 of the 12 examples were once part of the Jolika Collection—the most important grouping of Melanesian art ever assembled—once belonging to John and Marcia Friede, and published in the primary art reference to the region: New Guinea Highlands: Art from the Jolika Collection (De Young Museum, San Francisco & Prestel, 2017).