Object: Shield

E/1972/4/2
Spirit board, shield
Oceania: Papuan Gulf
Materials: wood

Different provinces and regions throughout Papua New Guinea have distinct forms of artistic expression, which are evident through their particular styles of wood carving, a nearly universal practice on the large island. In the Gulf of New Guinea, a particular style has developed based on angular lines and curves that tend to represent human forms, most specifically the face. These abstract depictions are believed to house the spirit of the ancestor that they were modeled after, and provide the owner with protection and strength.

Wooden shields like this one, also recognized as spirit boards, traditionally were used in warfare and raids between villages. Usually accompanied with a strap that attaches the board to the individual while leaving their arms available for fighting, these boards were meant to distract and intimidate the opponent with bright colors and designs. Warfare was once common in this region, but through government intervention and pacification of tribes, these shields are no longer used in this way. Instead, they decorate the men’s ceremonial house along with many other sacred objects believed to possess the spirits of ancestors.

Small spirit boards are sometimes carved and given to young boys. Larger ones, like this one, are given to males when they go through manhood initiation ceremonies, which are important rites of passage within the community. The spirit boards given to them, carved by their father and mother’s brother and traditionally decorated with natural red, white and black dyes, remain in the ceremonial house where only initiated men are allowed to enter. Today, many replicas of spirit boards are created and sold for tourists and have lost much of the magic and charm originally associated with these objects, but they continue to exhibit the wood carving skills that people from these villages are known for.

[Kristina Sokolowsky]

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