Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

AD late 1800s large & smaller examples of vayola curved convex form, with a tri-tiered decorated design and rows of 'E-motifs' in lime, black and red-ochre pigment, remnant of rattan looped handle to the face aged faded decorated surface.

Length Large  75 cm  x 8cm
Smaller 60cm x 7cm

These shields from the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea are made from acacia wood and decorated with motifs designed to challenge the enemy. Malinowski reported that many shields were left undecorated as only courageous warriors painted their shields. Painted shields were seen as a challenge and attracted many more spears.

Shields would be decorated with the motifs, which some researchers have interpreted as female, of particular fish, birds, snakes and ants, whose speed or ferocity might be passed on to the holder.

The motifs on these shield have purportedly been identified by Paramount Chief Pulayasi, Chief of Omarakana Village, in the Trobriand Islands. They include the red snake, who brought war magic to Kiriwina Island – the largest of the four Trobriand Islands, and a red feather, the symbol of an outstanding warrior.
Insects such as the cricket and a boi, a particular black insect, also decorate this shield. These creatures are admired by warriors because of their agility and the speed with which they move.
Only skilled and honoured warriors would have carried these shields. Possessing such a shield attracted attention to a warrior, issuing a challenge of invincibility. Lesser fighters, even chiefs, carried plain black or white shields, so as not to attract attention.  Shields such as these were last used in battle in 1899. After this date similar shields were probably made for sale to traders, explorers and administrators.

The shield is of a convex, oval shape with a double cane grip on the back, which is painted red. On the front it is painted with typical curvilinear designs using the local artistic colour scheme - red, black and white. Although the designs are always similar, no two shields are ever exactly the same.
Warfare in the Trobriand Islands was pursued with long thrown spears (four metres or more in length), wooden clubs, and shields such as these. Before Trobriands men went to war, the village magician would cast a spell over each shield by resting it on his knees, and whispering his spell into the decorated surface from a few centimetres away, empowering it with his breath. As a result, the shield became impervious to spears. Therefore, the painted designs were conceived to have magical powers that could be invoked to help ensure survival and success in combat.

There has been a great amount of debate over the meaning of the decoration on Trobriand Islands shields. Some scholars have seen the design as representing a flying witch called a mulukuausi, the most fearful thing in Trobriands mythology, which would terrify the enemy. Others have interpreted the shields as showing a husband and wife having sexual intercourse, which is considered an obscene visual insult. It is possible that a number of culturally important animals such as hornbills and snakes are shown. Still other experts think the shield designs represent a single human figure, much like the shell-inlaid human figures on high-status shields from the nearby Solomon Islands. In this interpretation, the three major 'zones' of the shield represent the figure's head, throat and abdomen. The Trobriand Islanders traditionally understood magical power to reside in the belly, and it has been suggested that the design represents the path by which a magician sends his power out into the world from inside his body.

When cricket was introduced to Papua New Guinea, it largely remained the standard international version except for the Trobriand Islands, east of PNG. Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism is a fascinating look at one of the ways the Trobriand Islanders have coped with imposed social change. They have taken the very proper game of cricket and transformed it into an outlet for mock warfare and tribal rivalry, inter-village competition, wild and erotic dancing, chanting and pure entertainment. A Methodist missionary from Britain, William Gillmore, first exposed them to cricket in 1903. He hoped it would reduce tribal fighting and rivalry and encourage a new morality. The islanders have creatively adapted the sport to the needs of their society in a way that reflects the effects of colonisation by British and American troops during the Second World War.

This article offers an interpretation of the Trobrianders' own explanation of their war shield design which was taken down by Reverend S. B. Fellows in about 1897. The design is coded and suggests an interpretation on three levels: the native rendering relating to stars, fish, birds, and so on; an X-ray view of human copulation from two angles; and a representation of Topileta, the deity, in Tuma, the underworld of the spirits and reincarnation. Evidence is given to support each level of the code which has radical implications for the understanding of traditional Trobriand society. The shield design suggests that Trobriand religion constituted a fertility cult.

Trobriand Islands shields are among some of the most elegant in New Guinea. According to Beran (in Peltier 2006: 419), they were used in the Trobriand Islands, and to a lesser extent on Woodlark Island. Only the most skilled warriors, of high rank, earned the right to carry them. Beran (in Beran and Craig 2005: 201-207) has summarized many interpretations of the delicately rendered motifs. Generally, the motifs are believed to represent various symbolic birds, snakes, and insects. The repeated 'E-motif' is thought to signify marks left by arrowheads.

ex Palmer Family Collection

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