Inter-tribal warfare was a part of Highland New Guinea life until the mid-20th century. Large, oblong wooden shields such as this - made by the Whagi or Hagen people from Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands Province - would be used to defend against spears, axes and arrows. Following pacification of the area by the Australian colonial authorities, many shields were burned as part of peace-making ceremonies, or turned into makeshift doors or beds. However, fighting broke out again in the 1980s and, for a brief period, battle shields were revived; older ones were repainted and others were made afresh. These new shields bore innovative decoration in place of – or in addition to – traditional tribal motifs and were conceived latterly as new canvases for indigenous art and even purpose-made for the tourist market.
Examples of designs on these new shields were beer adverts and comic-strip characters such as Phantom. Phantom is a hero crime-fighter, originally created in America in the 1930s but who also featured in a long-running series in Papua New Guinea’s daily newspaper, the Post Courier. These designs could also be meaningful however: references to beer may suggest a drunken brawl was the cause of unrest, whilst Phantom’s moral uprightness echoes the local belief that warriors who fail to confess to crimes against clansmen may suffer defeat in warfare. Here, Phantom is shown carrying a pistol in each hand and below the image in white paint is written ‘MAN i NO SAVE DAi’ - Tok Pisin words that roughly translate as ‘a man who can’t be killed’. The top of the shield is decorated with cassowary feathers.