Aboriginal Shields: Power, Protection and History

Dr Philip Jones discusses the fascinating significance and history of Aboriginal shields amid the SA Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia

Many cultural groups across the world, in each inhabited continent, have relied upon shields for protection in battle. In the case of Europeans, this reliance can be traced back for at least 2000 years in the written and illustrated record, to ancient Rome, Sparta and Greece.  Three important associations emerge from that record. First, the role of shields made of animal skin, wood or metal in providing an ultimate personal defence against blows and missiles; second, the fact that shields also served another purpose, beyond protection – that of projecting or re flecting an image of power, identity or de fiance towards the enemy; and third, the close association of shields with honour and manhood. Shields seem to have combined these associations, in different measure, in all their manifestations. The current exhibition at the South Australian Museum, Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia, explores these key associations while also laying out the full range of hardwood and softwood shields (narrow and broad, painted and carved, handles inset, carved or inserted) across the country. As with the Museum’s Boomerang exhibition, which toured internationally during the 1990s, this exhibition draws upon one of the world’s great ethnographic collections to explore the significance of a single Aboriginal object. Like the boomerang, Aboriginal shields are no longer made and used in any numbers. While a few shields are still made and decorated for ceremony in Central Australia and the Kimberley, it is fair to say that even among these communities shields are associated with the ‘old people’ and their ways. In other words, in the thoughts and actions of Aboriginal people themselves, shields have already become ‘museum objects’, provoking wonder and pride, and occasional replicas. Following European contact in each shield-using region there was a period in which shields served as a ‘canvas’ for experimentation, bearing new forms of expression and responses to the European presence. That phase had largely passed by the mid-20th century. Shields have played only a marginal role in recent Aboriginal art, although a number of contemporary indigenous artists have incorporated them within their practice. Aboriginal-shields-adelaide-review-2 With that historic shift in mind, it is interesting to see how such objects are displayed and discussed in museums and galleries today. The National Gallery of Victoria has incorporated a large and striking exhibit of mainly 19th-century Aboriginal shields within its Federation Square colonial art exhibit, with minimal explanation, as though these shields speak for themselves, as art objects. The Australian Museum in Sydney has recently exhibited its large collection of eastern Australian shields.  The exhibit was curated by the indigenous artist Jonathan Jones, who has arranged the main types into patterned arrays evoking the diamond and chevron designs once engraved onto the surfaces of the broad spear-shields and narrow parrying shields of the region. The effect is visually arresting, but does it tell us much about the ways in which shields were made and used in Aboriginal societies, for whom the likeliest aggressors were not white-skinned strangers with firearms but their own kin and close neighbours? The South Australian Museum’s exhibition provides a good example of how objects can provide answers to such questions, and provoke new ones, in dialogue with contemporary communities. Ethnographic museums still have a vital role to play here, drawing upon historic collections of objects and archival imagery. The South Australian Museum’s Shields exhibition is perhaps the first general, continental survey of Aboriginal shields, their main types, designs and uses. If the two terms ‘subtle’ and ‘spectacular’ can be applied simultaneously to the exhibition this is in reference not only to the fine and delicate detail of each shield’s manufacture and decoration, but to the total effect of more than 100 beautiful and striking objects ranged together. The exhibition raises some large questions, several of which will be explored more fully in a forthcoming book. Why were there no shields in Aboriginal Tasmania, Cape York or Arnhem Land, for example? Did Aboriginal people arrive in Australia with shields or did the various forms emerge during 50,000 years of history? The exhibition was produced by a new design team at the Museum, which promises an exciting series of exhibitions on similar themes, reaching back into the rich collection to tell new, coherent stories of Australian Aboriginal culture. Dr Philip Jones, senior curator of anthropology at the South Australian Museum and curator of the exhibition Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia. Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia Until Sunday, May 22 (10am-5pm) samuseum.sa.gov.au

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