Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object

Shield

Artist:
Vasem
Date:
mid-20th century
Geography:
Indonesia, Monu village, Unir (Undir) River region (upper)
Culture:
Asmat people
Medium:
Wood, paint
Dimensions:
H. 71 5/8 x D. 23 x W. 10 in. (181.9 x 58.4 x 25.4 cm)
Classification:
Wood-Implements
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection; Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mrs. Mary C. Rockefeller, 1965
Accession Number:
1978.412.929
Not on view
Among the Asmat, war shields are the most powerful symbolic element of a warrior's equipment, and have many layers of meaning. Traditionally, they were functional items used to protect warriors in battle by deflecting an enemy's spears and arrows. The carved and painted images on the surface of the shields were also intended to frighten the enemy and symbolize the power of the ancestors.

On this shield, the central image depicts the carver's dead father. The anthropomorphic form is clearly recognizable, which is typical of the northwestern Asmat region from which it came. The figure is surrounded by complex symbolic references to headhunting. The Asmat view fruit as analogous to the human head. Fruit-eating animals such as flying foxes (a large species of bat), or headhunting regalia such as the shell-nose ornaments of warriors, often appear as design elements. Although shields were seen by all, the deepest meanings were only understood by initiated men.
Michael C. Rockefeller Expedition, collected 1961; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961–1965; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978

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