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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Art To Know For Dinner Party Conversations

Asmat Shield
20th century

Most of the art we have looked at so far has been largely concerned with aesthetics. The idea of ‘Contemporary Art’ (with capital letters) is a funny beast, and a distinctly Western paradigm. Looking at art from non-Western cultures offers an interesting foil to these kind of concerns, as it was often connected with a particular event or moment, rather than being an single, disconnected image.

The shields, created by the Asmat people of West Papua, are a case in point. Our idea of ‘art’, the decoration on the shields, is here inextricably tied up with warfare. These objects are decorated for the practicalities of fighting, particularly headhunting. Vengeance was important for the Asmat. The shields were named after the dead who were said to wander listlessly until they were avenged. One particularly popular motif for shields was the flying fox, because it bites fruit from trees, and was thus associated with headhunting.

Since the 1960s the Asmat have been extensively studied by ethnologists and carvings have been snapped up collectors and tourists. Shields, such as the one shown, no longer hold their original symbolic function in warfare, headhunting obviously having long been suppressed, but instead have been absorbed into the West’s insatiable appetite for ‘primitive’ art, and are now predominantly commodities.


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