Asmat shield

Photo: Susan Cole

Asmat shield

early 20th century

Terror is triggered by the sight of moving shields in Asmat fields. Bursting out of a dense forest, the shields signal oncoming combatants as they dodge and lunge forward, leaping swiftly and making zigzag movements to fend off opponents. In a region of lush verdant growth, the shields presented as "billboards" to announce that warfare was to begin. Stark designs using white clay and red accents alluded to the blood of those about to become victims. Menacing images added their force--the flying fox, wild boar, praying mantis, hornbill and black palm cockatoo--are all present in this assembly. Warfare is a sacred duty laid down by a mythical hero, and every death has to be avenged to allow the souls of the dead to become ancestors.

Filigree shapes cover this shield with signs that may signify the deadly assault of a praying mantis. Since the female praying mantis sometimes bites the head of her male partner after mating, her aggression is symbolically evoked to empower the Asmat warrior.
Wood, raffia and pigment
71 x 20 1/2in. (180.3 x 52.1cm)
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas W. Griffin, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view


Published ReferencesMcClusky, Pamela, The Art of War, A Community of Collectors, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2008, p. 139, illus. 118.

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