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The art of war

Tribal conflict differed greatly in eastern and western highlands societies. In the west, a long history of settled agriculture and pig production enabled reconciliation through non-violent measures. Conflicts were generally resolved through conciliatory ceremonies and compensation payments. These exchanges were conducted by gifted orators and negotiators known as Big Men.

Wars between traditionally hostile eastern highlands tribes could last indefinitely and truces were only temporary. Eastern highlands societies placed emphasis on men becoming aggressive warriors and casualties in warfare were high, creating the need for palisaded villages as protection from enemies.

Traditional weaponry in the highlands included shields, clubs, axes, spears, and bows and arrows. Shields from the western and southern highlands are known for their vivid designs. Arrowheads were created for specific targets – animal and human – and hafted axes were used for warfare, as work tools and for ceremonial purposes. Hostilities have re-emerged in recent times with firearms largely replacing traditional weapons.

Focus work

Click the link to view the work in the collection, including an image and more information

Baruya people

Gɨlɨmihɨnya (shield and arrows with net bag) mid 1900s

The Baruya people were unknown to the Western world until 1951 when Australian patrols entered the Wonenara and Marawaka valleys. However, neighbouring groups revered the Baruya for their ferocity in battle. Warriors were considered Great Men in Baruya society and boys were trained to fight from a young age. Warfare was conducted on a grand scale with hundreds of warriors bearing shields and firing arrows at one another. Carved from planked wood, this roughly hewn gɨlɨmihɨnya is enveloped with netting to hold arrows. Its striped camouflage is painted with specific pigmented soils that have both a symbolic and aesthetic function. Gwegwaka, a soft creamy clay, was used in some initiation ceremonies and as body paint in war. Nambuchuwaka – vivid red clay from the Tsimbari tribe’s territory – was used in dances and initiation ceremonies, and for war paint. It also ensured beauty, good health and strength.

Issue for consideration

  • This object combines painting and carving techniques with the art form known as bilum – which is a bit like knitting. Find out more about bilum making. Consider how the different techniques used in this object create unity. How effective do you think the camouflage of the paint would be?
  • Discuss how the context of an object can change depending on how it is used, viewed or displayed, with particular reference to the display of objects traditionally used as weaponry in this exhibition. What are the challenges for a gallery or museum when presenting them as works of art?

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail