Shields
by Thomas Murray

Photography by Robert Bengtson - coming soon

"Come home victorious, or come home on your shield," was the cry of mothers to their sons in ancient Sparta. That legendary Greek city-state of Bronze Age times shared this philosophy with many indigenous tribes first encountered by European explorers during the era of discovery. First contacts with remote jungle societies that celebrated the feats of successful warriors and condemned the losers, often cost Westerners their lives. Survivors brought back war trophies to "curiosity cabinets", the forerunners of natural history museums. Spears, swords and shields with wild designs were evidence of tribal savagery and a justification for colonial imperialism and the onslaught of missionaries in the name of civilization.

Headhunting, indeed cannibalism, were not random acts of violence like we see in today's society. Rather they were highly ritualized behaviors intended to capture "life force" of the enemy and restore community and individual vitality. Fertility and blood sacrifice were understood to be directly related. It was an essential rite of passage for a young man of marriageable age to take a life, preferably of a great chief, whose many coups would then transfer to his vanquisher. Anyone not related by blood or marriage was considered a threat. Keeping track of ancestral genealogies was therefore not only the stuff of legend, but it could save your life by proving you were family, not an enemy. But sometimes battle was inevitable. The loss of a life demanded revenge.

Customary law regulated every aspect of life and death in traditional societies, very much evidenced in the preparation for battle. The strength of a warrior's magic largely determined the outcome. If you lost, obviously your magic was too weak. To best avoid this problem, a combatant must have necessary tattoos, appropriate costume elements, correct head ornaments and jewelry, plus talismanic decorations on their sword and hilt, etc. All of these steps helped, but perhaps most crucial was the shield.

A shield had to be able to parry blows and could not be too heavy to move quickly. As if to compensate for the light wood construction of many shields, the mystical qualities of their surface decoration became the primary defense. Intended to enchant and frighten, powerful animistic deities were often depicted. Thus, spirits could be co-opted into helping during the fray. Other shields are decorated with geometric elements, possibly acting a personal crest or status significator.

A man's shield became invested with spiritual potency beginning with its architecture. This was dictated by tribal convention, most of the time ethnically specific, but sometimes shared by several nearby groups. Shields are created from locally available materials such as wood, animal skin, metal, woven wicker, and lacquer. The vital decoration mentioned above was typically achieved with surface carving and/or pigments. This could also be enhanced with human hair, shell inlay or other accoutrements. Alternatively, fur or feathers might be attached. It was use that brought glory to the owner and the shield. Multiple successes would bring about a patina visible in this world and the next. Great old shields were often destroyed during tribal funerary rites. The dead warrior would require the shield for unknown hazards in the next world.

Dance customs might include mock battles at times of initiation, harvest festivals, etc. Over time, shields might be repainted as a means to re-consecrate them for a special ceremony or when being passed from father to son. Rituals continued in remote parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania up to the very recent past; therefore fresher looking paint does not instantly equate with "fake."

The analogy between a canvas and a shield was clear to artists of the first half of the 20th century. Concepts of Cubism, Surrealism, and Modernism were greatly influenced by tribal art. Early photos of artists studios show shields among the canvases. Only the most privileged can collect paintings of these artists; however the astute collect what inspired the artists.

Shields bring new insight to the expression, "the art of war." Now we may wax nostalgically for the days when combat was hand to hand, and battles often came to an end if there were more than a few casualties. Savages, indeed!!

The author would like to thank Erik Farrow for his contribution in co-curating this exhibition.

People wishing to pursue in this subject may find the following books of interest:
African Shields,
Dieter Plaschke and Manfred A. Zirngibl (Panterra Verlag, 1992)

De kunst va de verdediging, David van Duuren (Schilden uit het Tropenmuseum, 2001)

Dodolijk Mooi-Wapens Uit Centraal Afrika, (Gemeentekrediet, 1992)

Guba-Africa Shields Vol.1, Jan Elsen and Ivan Baur, (Tribal Arts S.P.R.L., 2002)

Protection, Power and Display - Shields of Island Southeast Asian and Melanesia, Andrew Tavarelli (Boston College Museum of Art, 1995)

Shields, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania, From the Collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum (Prestel, 2000)

Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago, Albert G. Van Zonneveld (C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2001)