Unknown Artist
Phantom in Blue with Pistol, 1980s-1990s

Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea
wood, natural pigment, commercial paint, rattan, fibre
[Natural wood background and finely woven cane top edge]
170 x 72 cm

Papua New Guinea, Highlands
Chris Boylan, Sydney
Private collection, Melbourne

A Papuan New Guinea Highland War Shield, with a painted depiction of “The Phantom” comics crime-fighter, is a strong artefact example of the power of cross-cultural influence. From North American Western culture, to Melanesia, the ‘Phantom’ image first began to appear on New Guinea Highland shields in the 1980s. They were a spontaneous development by the young warriors who were the first generation to be able to read and write. Many other “new” designs also appeared on shields: football motifs for example, that equated tribal fighting with football competitions. The ‘Phantom’ comic books were readily available in the main towns from 1970s onwards, and young men drew upon two aspects of this comic-book hero; he protected the village people (albeit set in Africa) from evil men but, above all, he was ‘The Man Who Never Dies’.

Warfare was heavily suppressed under the Australian colonial administration, where patrol officers constantly moved among the villages, attempting to stop outbreak of wars before they began – usually but not always succeeding. With Independence, and less autocratic rule, warfare emerged once more; old shields were reused, new ones made. Often these Phantom motifs are painted over older designs, with the abstract pecked designs beneath the newer paintwork.

The War Shield has always been considered an extension of the warrior himself. When warfare was expected, warriors repainted their shields to ensure that the colours shone brilliantly against the sun to dazzle and threaten the opposing side. In the western Pacific, shields bore the name of warriors, and possessed a life force, or spirit, that connected them to their ancestor.

Michael Reid OAM

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