The Dayak [Iban] and Their Shields (3)

Utaps and Dayak shields in general

Descriptions written at the end of the nineteenth century

Form, function and decoration

The art of protection: Indonesian shields in context

Pitt Rivers on Indonesian shields

Two Dayak shields in the Pitt Rivers collection, 1884.30.36 and 1884.30.37

The Art of Protection: Shields in Context

Extract from S. Rodgers' 'Beyond Shields: Exploring an Indonesian Aesthetic of the Protective Arts' in Tavarelli's Protection, Power and Display

(pp xx; the reference given is fully cited in the bibliography)

Shields from Indonesian societies outside Java and Bali can certainly be studied as things in themselves, or in their immediate local contexts as artworks of war or ceremonial display from a specific ethnic culture, such as Mentawai or Nias. Shields can also be examined for their symbolic structure, as E.R. Leach (1954) shows in his familiar essay 'A Trobriand Medusa?'. Leach's Freudian style of interpretation of his Melanesian material might well be illuminating in the study of Indonesian art. However, another way of looking at Indonesian shields can also be rewarding: the view from a comparative perspective that places them in relation to a much wider range of protective arts, so to speak, that often surrounds them in any Indonesian culture and goes beyond the military realm, per se. These protective arts range in form from sculpture to dance to jewelry to ritual costumes to body decorations (such as tattoos), and beyond that into certain types of oratory and village healing repertoires. When seen within this wide and, to western onlookers, somewhat unexpected range of artworks and activities, Indonesian shields emerge as just one form of armor among many.

Fortifying the human body with actual shields, or through the aid of more subtle protective devices (such as amulets or ritual costumes glowing with gold spangles or shiny headgear, to bedazzle enemies), once seemed prudent within Indonesian village aesthetic systems that drew heavily on ideas of bodily and spiritual vulnerability to supernatural harm and danger. Also important here were ideas of death and the regeneration of life, and assumptions about how individuals and communities could fortify themselves against human and mystical attack, as well as calamities such as plagues, by concentrating power (often associated with light) within their temples, houses and bodies. Encircling protected spaces with fences, cordons of sacred textiles, and house walls was also a crucial idea.

If this interpretation is correct, and Indonesian shields once participated in wider, but more hidden, armamentaria for protecting the threatened, fragile human body, it may still be possible to imaginatively reconstruct some of the essentially religious systems of thought that once undergirded shield traditions in places such as interior Kalimantan, for example, and the islands off the west coast of Sumatra. In these areas, actual shield protection and use largely disappeared for several reason: the encroachment of the Dutch colonial state into hinterland regions from mid to late 1800s, pacification of local, inter-village warfare during the same period, the abolition of headhunting, and large-scale conversions to Islam and missionary Christianity. Although shields disappeared in early European contact times in many places (or became transformed into objects of antiquarian interest for local people and tourists alike), the other protective arts - such as guardian statues and amulet ornaments - often persisted in some form to the present day.....

What specific form did these protective arts tend to take? This varied but most village repertoires included healers' charms; amulate jewelry worn by small children; various soul-protecting, woven, decorated textiles (particularly important for persons going through dangerous transition times, between social statuses); and shining metal ornaments once worn by warriors and now by dancers ...

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