The pre-contact art system of South-East Australia, which is embodied in men’s shields and other ritual objects of material culture, finds powerful and explicit expression in Melbourne Now. The repeated incised or painted crosshatched, herringbone, zigzag, chevron, diamond, rhombic, parallel line and meander forms ‒ which are specific to individual clans – have inspired new directions in Victorian Indigenous artistic practice.
Authorised versions of Australian history have taught us that this continent was peacefully settled while Aboriginal people tell very different stories of warriors fighting and dying for their lands. The presence of contemporary Gunai shields by Steaphan Paton and Raymond Young in Melbourne Now serves to reconnect these shields to their dispossessed Aboriginal ancestors and expresses what it means to be connected to Country.
Paton’s Cloaked combat immortalises the broad shields proudly emblazoned with Gunai diamond insignia that at first encounter were unable to withstand European colonisers’ superior technology. His bark shields pierced with modern arrows chronicle the onslaught of colonialism at its most intense and the eventual demise of the hunter-gatherer economy. These articles of war remind us that land is contested space and that Aboriginal culture will no longer be silenced. Young’s Shielding our future privileges the different designs of five Gunai clans in the introduced medium of ceramics.
The NGV’s collection displays of customary Papua New Guinea shields inspired two Melbourne artists Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley to develop a continuing series of their own shields, from 2004 onwards. A selection of their current shields is dramatically juxtaposed with a group of shields from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea selected by the artists from the NGV collection. Most notable among them are two Phantom shields which incorporate images of the Phantom, a twentieth century comic book super hero. These compelling shields are products of the modern world that have been used recently in inter-tribal fighting. One is made from a recycled 44-gallon drum and the other from the outer plank of the tapi tree. The Phantom, a contemporary symbol of invincibility, warns the owner’s opponents to beware of the man who never dies. The image of the Phantom, a ‘good guy’, is related to the ‘moral uprightness’ of warriors who must be blameless if victory is to be achieved. In common with other Wahgi shields, the design elements are large and bold to enhance the impression made by its bearer upon his opponents and to enable its bearer to be recognised at a distance on the battlefield.