Living in the New Guinea central highlands in the Star Mountains from which the Sepik River flows, the Telefolmin (“Telefol people”) belong to the Mountain-Ok language family. The bilum, a looped string bag made in various sizes by women, is the most ubiquitous craft from this area. Carving, done by men, is traditionally limited to patterning on arrow shafts; decoration on drums, bamboo smoking tubes, and paint containers; and house entrance boards and shields.
Rectangular shields, carved with patterns in relief and painted with red, black, white, and yellow pigments, were considered representations of ancestors. Among Mountain-Ok peoples, a shield was usually carried into warfare by an otherwise unarmed man, who protected one or two archers following him. It might also be used to hold down an enemy in close quarters as an archer took aim.
Though Telefolmin today maintain that no meaning is associated with the overall design of a shield, interpretations of individual motifs, though not consistent, seem generally to relate them to parts of humans and animals. The four holes in the shield originally held two pieces of cane that were knotted, passed through the top holes to the back of the shield, twisted together, and then pushed through the two bottom holes and knotted on the outside, forming a handle on the back of the shield.
Telefol peoples, Papua New Guinea
19th or 20th century
Wood, pigment, fiber
H. 67 ½ in. (171.5 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, 78.6