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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to artifacts

Asmat Shields, Papua (Irian Jaya), Indonesia

[Asmat shield, Basim Village, bold designs with small ancestor figure on top: 11k]

The Asmat inhabit a vast swamp on the south coast of the island of New Guinea in the Indonesian province of Papua (also called West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya). Until recently, their culture focused on warfare and headhunting. Shields (jamasj) are protection from both the physical and spiritual powers of the enemy. The Christian missions and the Indonesian government have ended overt tribal warfare, but raids still occur in remote areas. Shield motifs, and the ancestor for whom a shield is named, give its owner power. Many designs are headhunting symbols.

Figure 1: Asmat war shield collected near Basim Village, Papua, Indonesia decorated with cuscus (tree kangaroo) tail designs. (Area A) This area is the most accessible, the closest to the coastal government administrative center of Agats, so the shields are frequently seen in collections.

[Asmat Shield, Sawa-Erma Villages, complex interlocking designs: 15k]

Figure 2: Asmat war shield collected in Sawa-Erma Villages, Papua, Indonesia. (Area B) The head section is filigreed into two ancestor figures. The largest designs on the body are tar, flying fox/fruit bat motifs, the smaller ones include possum tails and two ancestor figures on the right top and bottom.

Tobias Schneebaum's book, Asmat Images, divides Asmat shields into four major stylistic types:

[Asmat shield, collected at Komasjma Village with two flower motifs: 12k]

Figure 3: Asmat war shield collected at Komasjma Village, Papua, Indonesia, incised with an unusual floral motif. (Area C).

Old Asmat shields were roughed out with stone tools and the fine relief detailing finished with cassowary bone chisels or shell tools. The coastal people make chisels from nails salvaged from driftwood and have apparently been doing this for a long time. We found that the backs of many shields from Areas C and D are still shaped with the distinctive dish-shaped cuts of stone tools, even though most carvers have steel tools and use them to carve the fronts and designs. On the coast, shields are made from the lightweight prop roots of mangrove trees, but inland a harder wood is used. Most shields are large, from roughly 5 to 6 feet tall (170 - 200 cm), although smaller ones are made, especially for sale.

All colors have magical qualities and represent different aspects of the Asmat world, both seen and unseen. The white color comes from burned and powdered mussel shells on the coast or, farther inland, from kaolin clays. Yellow comes from clay traded out from the foothills behind the Asmat swamp. When burned it turns into the red colors. Black comes from crushed charcoal. Red is the color of beauty and power. The Asmat say that red painted around the eyes "imitates the color around the eyes of a black king cockatoo when angry and gives a man a fearsome look."

[Asmat shield, collected on the Brazza River, covered with a maze-like fish pattern): 14k]

Figure 4: Asmat war shield collected on the Braza River, Papua, Indonesia. The design is probably a fish pattern, enam. (Area D)

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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/