Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea
red Phantom on green background
wood, fibre, paint
177 x 95 cm
The ‘Phantom’ image first began to appear on New Guinea Highland shields in the late 1970s or early 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’; and this can be seen written on some shields. On this shield it is written in Pidgin: “Mi No Save Dai”, meaning “ I Never Die”.
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.