This is why I love tribal art: A Solomon Island War Shield

From time to time, I will post important, charismatic works of tribal art. Sad to say, many of these works are no longer being made. Nonetheless, it is still a privilege to be able behold these rare and beautiful objects, now in museums and private collections; they are a neglected part of our human heritage. Full disclosure: I am a tribal art collector. I will kick off this series with an iconic shield from the Solomon Islands located east of Papua New Guinea.

Shield inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Solomon Islands. 19th century. Nautilus shell, pigment, fibre. Metropolitan Museum, New York, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972. Height: 84.5 cm.

Close-up view of the war shield

Map of Melanesia showing the location of the Solomon Islands

More information about this object

War shields such as this are among the most iconic objects of Oceanic art. These small elliptical shields are made of wicker and are adorned with tiny squares of nautilus shell. The central design is commonly an elongated anthropomorphic figure surrounded by abstract designs and disembodied faces. Only about twenty shields exist in collections today, all of which are believed to have originated from the Florida and Santa Isabel Islands, between 1840 and 1850. Due to their fragility, it is unlikely that these shields were actually used in combat. Instead, it is believed that they were owned by high-status individuals and traded to Europeans as ritual gifts of exchange.

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