The distinctive kidney shape of the shields of the Kukuyandji and related groups in the rainforests around Cairns, in the north of the Cape York Peninsula, derives from the buttress roots of the native fig tree from which they are hewn. Such shields feature a boss in the centre to provide increased strength, and a raised handle on the reverse. They were usually decorated by two initiated men painting symmetrical clan designs from opposite ends of the shield. The bold designs in red and yellow ochres and white, outlined in black, appear abstract but in fact are conventional representations of totemic creatures and plants, such as spiders, crabs, species of fish and a variety of trees and shrubs. Human blood would be mixed with the ochres to impart the maker’s spirit to the shield and to enhance its protective qualities. In the 1930s the anthropologist Ursula McConnel recorded the interpretations of a number of shield designs, and these patterns proved to be an influence on the work of the renowned Australian artist Margaret Preston.
The shields were used in ceremonial battles and in warfare. This particular example shows signs of much use—it bears indentations made by sword clubs and spears. Shields would also be given to young men during initiation ceremonies.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010