The Dayak [Iban] and Their Shields (2)

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

Form, Function and Decoration:
Extract from Alpert's 'Indonesian shields' in Tavareli's Protection, Power and Display

(pp xx; Alpert's bibliography does not give citations for Low 1848, McDougall 1863, Moore 1837 or Mundy 1848, but the other reference given is fully cited in the bibliography)

...During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indonesian shields appear in western collections in increasing numbers. That period also marked the final phase of consolidation of the Dutch East Indies into what would become present day Indonesia. A western sense of manifest destiny, the right to pacify, absorb, and 'civilize' native populations inadvertently encouraged the collecting and exhibiting of native arms, not only as tangible symbols of conquest, but also as objects that subtly suggested a savagery and inferiority of conquered peoples. ...

By the early twentieth century, the pacification of remote areas ... had rendered the use of shields obsolete as implements of war. Both the number of types and the aesthetic embellishment of shields became greatly diminished as they lost their function and protective powers. Many shield traditions simply disappeared.

On the other hand, a careful inspection of museum inventories reveals that this was when most of the very finest surviving shields were collected. Also it is in these older museum collections that one usually finds examples of rare pieces from now extinct traditions. ...

In the western sense, shields were never perceived by their makers as being beautiful works of art. Rather a traditional shield maker probably would have experienced a sense of fineness or completeness that emanated more from the act, or process, that existed between the craftsman and his material than the resulting object. If this 'process' went well, then the product was good, and admired by others. ... In this traditional process, an individual's creativity was of minor importance. The wide range of quality of shields in tribal Indonesia reflects the fact that there was not a class of professional shield makers, although some successful artisans did make shields for others on a barter basis.

A fine shield would have been praised primarily for its usefulness. When commenting on the deficiencies of Dayak armor, Brooke Low, an early observer, wrote in 1848 that a Dayak's 'reliance is placed upon the shield' (Roth 1896:128). ...

Diverse martial strategies also fostered an ingenious repertoire of shield types. For instance, the Dayaks used large shields to protect their bodies as they attempted to set fire to the pylons of besieged long houses (Mundy 1848 II:69). They also employed small, light-weight ovoid shields effective against blowpipe attacks and close encounters that permitted limited space for maneuvering [sic]. The most common form of Dayak shield is the kliau [similar to 1884.30.36 and 37]. This type of light, wooden shield was 'not meant to receive a spear point, but to divert the spear by a twist of the hand' (Low 1848:212). Referring to swordplay, John Dalton, another early eyewitness to native combat, wrote in 1828: 'The Diaks in fighting always strike and seldom thrust' (Moore 1837). Thus the horizontal rattan bands on kliau not only strengthened the shield, but allowed a clever combatant to snare an opponent's mandau, or sword, in its bindings. According to Bishop McDougall, this act provided the brief moment necessary to dispatch an enemy's head from his body (McDougall 1863: ii32). ...

Shields and weapons were part of a warrior's personal ensemble that might also include a distinctive war jacket, ornaments, and elaborate headgear depending on his prowess or social rank. ...

Like all Dayak shields, the painted outer imagery on this Kayan shield [referring to the one in the exhibition, the comments are valid however for 1884.30.36 and 37], was meant to psychologically confuse and repel an enemy. The most common design on painted kliau are demon-like faces surrounded by tufts of hair assembled from the dispatched heads of enemies. ... Conversely, if the front of a Dayak shield displayed aggressive visual imagery aimed at an enemy, what did the inside designs signify? Were those images for personal reflection, or did they in some way represent a form of supernatural power that was intended to protect, aid, or extort a warrior to valor and victory? The back of this particular Kayan shield depicts two slightly different dragon-like beasts interfacing with one another. These mystical beasts, called aso, were commonly found in Dayak art and were generally thought to confer protection upon those who possessed this image. Other shields depict rows of human-like figures or abstract anthropomorphic designs. Sadly, without the long departed painters' explications, we will never know the deepest meanings of their designs.

The designs on certain textiles bear interesting comparison to the designs on some shields. Among the Iban Dayak, the most sacred of all textiles are those known as pua sungkit. These blankets were only used in conjunction with head hunting. Traditionally pua sungkit were displayed when sending a warrior off to battle, and for receiving a warrior's capture of a pala, or fresh human head. Ibans honored these blankets with ritual offerings and with pantun, or sacred chants. By identifying with the central theme or image on a pua sungkit, a warrior could expropriate its power in his quest for heads. ... Given their collateral association with head hunting, there are correlations between the similar designs found on both pua sungkit and on the reverse of similarly painted war shields....

For most of tribal Indonesia, the last warriors used shields some 70 to 100 years ago. Thinking about that era, I am reminded that a deceased warrior in Mentawai could be memorialized by having an image of his hand carved onto his former shield. For the living, seeing such an image helped to keep the warrior's memory alive. In turn, when those who had remembered him died, and the shield was no longer associated with any particular person, it was simply thrown away. Unlike the fate of those discarded Mentawai shields, [the exhibition with which this catalog was associated but also this project and the PRM displays] offer a rare opportunity to glimpse the stylistic range and the aesthetic quality of a few of this area's shields. I was fortunate to know a few elderly warriors who as youths had thrown spears at the invading Dutch, or had actually taken a head in battle. They are gone, but the artistic vitality of these shields remain as an eloquent reminder of their once colorful and now vanished world.

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