87.0 x 34.6 cm
War shields - known as 'jamasj' among the Asmat people who reside in present-day Papua Province of Indonesia - are used in battle to protect warriors from arrows and spears. Carved representations of ancestors, which cover the face of the shield, bestows upon the carrier the strength, courage and determination to fight in battle. It is thought that enemies will be so intimidated by the sight of the shield they will flee in terror from the advancing warriors.
Only certain artists may carve motifs on the shields, according to the will of ancestral spirits. The Asmat hew shields from the roots or trunks of mangrove trees, which grow in abundance along the south-western coast. The soft wood is easily carved from stone, bone and shell, which were the only tools available in pre-contact times. In many Asmat regions, white pigment is sourced from seashells which are roasted and ground, while red is obtained from either the juice of wild berries, baked red ochre, or from the bark of the 'wase' tree.
Shields from the north western region of Asmat territory are oval in shape with a pointed 'head'. The head often displays incised decorations which might represent rays, turtles or cassowaries, thought to be manifestations of an ancestor and their soul. The central section is rich in detail and carved in high relief, with the lower section undecorated.
This shield - acquired from Galleries Primitif in 1968 - was collected by Senta Taft in the 1960s in Mimika in West Irian Jaya, however, having noted the markings, Taft came to the conclusion that the shield had originated in Jufri Village on the Lower Unir River (formerly known as the Lorentz River).
Taft noted that the markings represent 'ghost elbows or fingers' and that the 'face' on the uppermost section of the shield was representative of an ancestor, possibly in the form of a ray, abundant in coastal waters.
Tony Tuckson, Aboriginal and Melanesian art, Sydney, 1973, 41. cat.no. 5; South West New Guinea; titled 'Plaque'
Aboriginal and Melanesian art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 19 Oct 1974 -