The four generations begin with shields, representing classical Koori or pre-contact material, which are the foundation of men’s work. The examples on display were collected in the 1800s and early 1900s, mostly without the artist’s name being recorded.
The marga or parrying shield and the manggaan or broad shield are two types of shields unique to south-east Australia. Both are carved from wood and are often highly decorated works of beauty.
The term ‘broad’ refers to the flat face of the shield. They are sometimes called ‘spear’ shields as they are understood to have been used to deflect spears. South-east broad shields are created using two techniques: worked from the inner bark of a tree or carved from a solid piece of wood. The former involves cutting the bark off a tree, paring it down and shaping it, then adding a cane handle; the latter is made with a single piece of wood that has the handle cut into it.
Parrying shields are solid and narrow to parry, or ward off, blows from clubs. Cut from a single piece of wood, these shields often have three or four sides with incised front-facing designs. Their use is seen in the work Ceremony c1880s by William Barak (reproduced below), who captures the unmistakable form of the parrying shield in a scene involving two men in close combat, each with a club in one hand and a parrying shield in the other, under the watchful eyes of the elders.
The skill and time involved in creating shields indicates their cultural importance. Engraved with myriad lines, south-east shields best exemplify the region’s artistic cultural practice. Like parrying shields, broad shields are often cloaked in an array of diamonds, zigzags, squares, bands, circles, criss-crosses and the occasional figure. These iconic designs empower the shield bearer by representing country and identifying both regional and clan affiliations. As seen in the imagery of both William Barak and Tommy McRae, broad and parrying shields played a central role in south-east ceremonies. Shields used in performance would often be painted with natural pigments, remnants of which can still be seen on many today.