Hello! I’m glad you’ve found this blog post on the Digital Lab website. It was first presented as a lecture for the MAA Friends community. If you are not already a member, can I invite you to consider joining us? Details are on the museum website.
Here I would like to discuss with you three wooden shields from West Papua, in the collections at MAA.
These shields are from the Asmat people: their shape and the design which matches the left side with the right are distinctive. There are two immediate questions we might ask: who made them? How did they come to be in the collections at MAA?
They were made by the Asmat people from the Eilanden or Sirets River on the south coast of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. These warriors came with a fearsome reputation. They saw off Captain James Cook’s landing party in September 1770 and the Dutch expeditionary forces in 1909.
And not until the 1950s did the Dutch have any effective presence in the region.
How did these shields come to leave this region in 1936?
They were part of a collection made by Lady Clementine Spencer Churchill when she was a guest on Lord Moyne’s yacht during their tour of the Pacific in 1935/6.
Lord Moyne had been a member of the Conservative government from 1924 to 1929, as Financial Secretary under Winston Churchill at the Treasury. Following the defeat of the government he went into political wilderness and began exploring the world.
He bought the SS Dieppe in September 1933, a steam passenger ferry launched 1905 for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway. He converted it into a yacht and renamed it The Rosaura. The refit included echo-sounding equipment and two 36-foot launches, the Rose and the Aura.
Moyne took the Prince of Wales and Wallace Simpson in August 1934 on a tour of Greece and Turkey. In the following month, he took Winston and Clementine Churchill to the Eastern Mediterranean; when an invitation came to Clementine to join his Eastern Cruise (November 1934 – April 1935) she eagerly accepted.
Moyne’s objectives were clear. In his 1936 book, Walkabout: A Journey in Lands between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, he wrote:
‘My own instinct has always been to get away from the great ports and centres of modern life and to visit human races, birds and beasts, rivers, mountains and forest where they remain untouched by western development. One has to go far from the steamship routes nowadays to find regions which have baffled penetration by aeroplane and motor car, but they do still exist… I found these stark-naked cannibals intensely interesting. Living in swamps with no metal weapons or tools and where even stone is a valuable commodity only to be obtained from the distant foothills by long journeys through the territories of hostile neighbours, they none the less produce highly decorative carved and painted woodwork.’
These were sentiments that Clementine shared. She wrote about her visit to Asmat to her husband, Winston:
‘This is the “genuine article”! – uncharted seas, unexplored territory, stark native savages’ (Churchill letter 20/1/1935: Churchill College Archives).
In this letter she also gave an account of an exchange with men in canoes on the Eilanden River:
‘They looked absolutely magnificent in silhouette. So we stopped when we saw them and waved and they shook pieces of palm matting at us. We were both very respectful to each other. They signaled to us to come on and we signaled “No, you come to us and not all together!” Finally 3 of the canoes approached. We kept our canoe as a buffer between them and us and then we began exchanging. They gave us their paddles, their shields, their nose ornaments (beautifully carved made of the bones of cassowary birds) and we gave hatchets, knives, bottles, old tins. They like empty beer bottles best. Their manners were beautiful, no snatching or grabbing. Their faces in repose were sad – even gloomy – but lit up now and then with lovely smiles.’
How did Clementine and Moyne’s party manage to make effective contact and exchange items in such precarious conditions? Despite these conditions, all the photographs of the events show remarkable evidence of mutual confidence. I think that this confidence was established by Moyne during an earlier trip in 1928.
How did Churchill’s shields come to Cambridge?
The expedition was covered both by The Times and The London Illustrated News. Louis Clarke, then director of MAA, realised that Moyne had given much of his collection made on the voyage to the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and asked for artefacts for his museum. Moyne replied that all his collection had already been claimed, but Clementine might offer some of hers. She promptly did and a relieved Clarke wrote in thanks:
What are we to make of these shields today?
How do these Asmat shields ‘work’? What do they mean? When carvers in the same village are asked to explain the meaning of designs on shields they come up with a bewilderingly different number of interpretations. Furthermore, they do not appear to have a comprehensive picture of designs from other parts of Asmat, which they simply describe as being ‘from elsewhere’. This does not mean that the designs lack significance. Rather, it implies that the meaning may not be stable or widely agreed. My fundamental contention here is that designs cannot be simply read: they are not simply analogues of linguistic terms. They are not hieroglyphics. What they are, are signals of extreme menace.
Imagine that you are out in the open. From over the horizon suddenly these emblazoned shields come before you and confront you. Unless you are fearless you will almost certainly get startled in surprise. The effect of this confrontation could result in your being either afraid or disorientated. You respond intuitively and spontaneously. You become engrossed in scanning the design which entices you into further contemplation.
This is just what the shield designer wants you to do, to become so engaged in reading the complexity of the design that you are rooted to the spot, you are stopped in your tracks. What gives these designs such power? I think that it is a combination of both simplicity and complexity. Simplicity, because shields, by and large, follow a simple form related to their function. They are oblong, and the designs are normally balanced with left hand side mirroring the right, and with a clear top and bottom that can be likened to the human body. Take another look at the Asmat shields.
You may, at first sight, think that the design is simple. But try drawing it for yourself. You will immediately discover that it requires real concentration to get the elements of the design in the right place. But we should also note that there is depth implied in even the shallowest of carvings. The figure stands out; it is carved out of the background. This is the distinction between the figure and ground, but it is one that is somehow always unstable. This is one of the most significant defining features of Asmat design, and it can be seen on all forms of carving but especially on shields. This represents a kind of oscillation. But an oscillation within the regular closed form of the gestalt where the relationship of the edges, borders, and fringes to the central forms, the detail to the overall pattern, all confirm the specifically Asmat decorative whole.
We are captivated and indeed fascinated by the complexity of the designs so that we are unable to extricate ourselves: we are trapped in the powerful grasp of form. Like demons, anthropologist Tim Ingold suggests in his book Lines: A Brief History (2007), that we are lured to the surface by a ‘fascination with the pattern but are so tantalized by that that [we] cannot bear to pass it without first having unraveled it or solved the puzzle it presents’.
Does this carving skill still persist?
It certainly does as the men making this canoe prow demonstrate.
I was fortunate enough to commission this prow ornament from Rodan Omoma, a wow-ipits (master carver) in August 2010. I think that you can appreciate the tension and symmetry in the work. It is now here in MAA and serves as a reminder that Asmat carving is still as vibrant as the day that Lady Clementine Churchill first laid eyes on those shields nearly 90 years ago now.