Massim War Shield - Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

Detailed, flowing designs cover the face of this wooden war-shield (vayola) from the Trobriand Islands, a group of coral atoll islands off the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea. Typical of the region, this shield is of squat oval shape, with a double grip on the back, and its curvilinear designs are painted in the local black-and-red color scheme. Elaborately designed shields were used only by the most distinguished warriors; those of lesser esteem used plain ones. Although the designs painted on vayola are always similar, no two shields are ever exactly the same. 

Sculptors from the Trobriand Islands were prolific carvers, covering the surface of almost every conceivable object with their distinctive abstract and semi-abstract designs. Vayola are a notable exception in this regard, their designs being only lightly scored before being executed in paint.

Warfare in the region was prosecuted with long thrown spears, wooden clubs, and shields. Before Trobriands men went to war, the village magician would cast a spell over each shield by resting it on his knees and whispering his spell into the decorated surface from a few centimeters away, empowering it with his breath. As a result, the shield became impervious to spears. The painted designs themselves were conceived to have magical powers that could be invoked to help ensure survival and success in combat.

The meaning of these shields’ designs has been much debated. Sexual intercourse figures largely in many interpretations, but some scholars have seen the design as representing a flying witch called a mulukuausi, the most fearful thing in Trobriands mythology, which would terrify the enemy. A number of culturally important animals, such as hornbills and snakes, may be encoded in the abstract motifs. Other experts believe the images represent a single human figure, much like the shell-inlaid human figures on high-status shields from the nearby Solomon Islands, the design representing the path by which a magician sends his power out into the world from inside his body.

This particular shield has a storied provenance. One of its earliest and most distinguished European owners was celebrated archaeological innovator, ethnologist, and collector Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers. The shield remained in his family’s possession for several generations, from the nineteenth century until the mid-1960s, at which point it came into the collection of painter and gallerist Merton Simpson.

19th century
Wood, cane, natural pigments
29 1/8” h
- Reportedly with Stevens, London
- Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, Rushmore, Dorset, presumably acquired from the above
- Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, by descent from the above
- Captain George Pitt-Rivers, by descent from the above by 1927
- Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers), by descent from the above by 1966
- Merton Simpson, New York, presumably acquired from the above via John Hewitt, London
- Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright Collection, New York, acquired from the above on June 14, 1967
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