Featured Image: Shield, collected from Rockingham Bay by John Ewen Davidson in 1866-68, 99.8 x 42.5 cm. British Museum. Oc.7696.

As part of the extensive collection of Australian Indigenous artefacts at the British Museum, the Rockingham bay rainforest shield tells a deeply divisive story of the meeting of cultures, and the making and undoing of a way of life. The shield’s history teaches us a lot about the exchange of objects, ‘tradition’ and how cultures have and will continue to influence each other. 

Though the rainforest shield above struck me at first sight as a thing of beauty, it was the life story of the object itself that truly drew me in. This is particularly true in the case of the many stories connected to this shield, stories not only of origin, design and utility, but of survival, kinship and ultimately, of great suffering. This one shield reveals the complex beginnings of a cultural exchange that would lead to devastating outcomes for its makers, stories too important not to uncover. The effects of the ‘Terra Nullius’ doctrine in Australia and the social upheaval that was to come spelled the beginning of the end of artistic, cultural and social lives beyond true measure, as the Aboriginal way of life contended with the powers of colonisation.

Exhibited for the first time in 2015 at the British Museum, the painted rainforest shield is made of an oval piece of fig wood (Ficus Albipila), with a surface painted in ochres and white clay. There is a handle carved into verso. The piece is very rare, with designs that have been traced back to the Cairns region of Western Australia. Up close, the shield is striking as its colours shimmer in the light. It was obtained from native Australians in Rockingham bay, Cardwell, Queensland in 1872, south of the Tully river. Cardwell was the first port settlement in Queensland, established in 1864. Communication there was established with the Indigenous population through Morill, a shipwrecked sailor, who had lived with the native population for years. 

The traditional use of the shields were for protection in battle, and the designs reveal a certain appreciation of form. The shields were given to young men during their rite of passage, and their personalised designs were handed down through generations, identifying them and their country. The designs were naturalistic and geometric, and it is thought these shields would have been elevated from the status of ethnographic artefact to art object in the eyes of the British. As the influx of European settlers affected their way of life, the creation of the shields for traditional purposes eventually vanished, leading to the Aboriginal commodification of their objects of war. Those indigenous to the rainforests were known to have been active in the trade of their artefacts, as exchanges occurred until the 19th century, when displacement and destruction of territory had taken its toll on the population. It is speculated that many shields in circulation today have patterns and designs of no meaning, due to the processes of commodification and reproduction. This particular shield is of a rare design, with only one faintly similar shield having been sold by Sotheby’s at auction in 2005.

Skjermbilde 2018-01-08 kl. 15.07.13
Men at Cardwell, Rockingham Bay, 1890s. National Library of Australia.

The 18th century signified a time when transformative and violent encounters blighted the Australian shores, as encounters devolved into conflict. This shield in particular was donated to the British Museum by John Ewen Davidson, a sugar industry pioneer who had donated many Indigenous Australian objects to the museum during the years of 1872-1877. Davidson was an advocate of coloured labour, and his records show great involvement in the terror of the Aboriginal resistances during his time, a testament to the terrible consequences of political action taken against those deemed ‘lesser than’. How excruciatingly ironic it is then that objects originated from the depths of Indigenous culture came to be considered exquisite and worthy of exhibition.

Great movements and traditions have arisen from the entanglement of others

Great movements and traditions have arisen from the entanglement of others, such as with the commodification of the Australian shields. For better or for worse, these interactions produce discernible and profound chain reactions that are not only testament to the fragility of the ‘homogenous’ culture, but proof of a continuously changing cultural landscape. That the shield was traded for its aesthetic qualities speaks to the interconnectedness of humanity’s appreciation for things of beauty. Much like music might be proposed to be a multifaceted phenomenon throughout all of human existence, so can we propose that art, or the creation of and appreciation for visual material might be too. 

That the Aboriginal community could trade on their beautiful objects with a culture as foreign as the British is testament to a common recognition of the value of material beyond utility. It raises the questions of what relationship humans have with visual images, and what role it plays in our lives, indeed how do images manage to have their effect on perceivers and why is it important? 

At the centre of these questions lies the interaction between cultures and their distinct visual material. The exchange of material hints at the relationships that were built (or destroyed) between cultures, and points to the existence of processes of interculturalisation as a recurring phenomenon throughout world history. 

The concept that visual material can be and has been used in terms of economic currency and in establishing social relations has consequences for the way we see our place and the place of others in history and in society. In this view, art and other objects of aesthetic creation speaks to everyone on some level or another. Thinking of art and of culture and its endless varieties of expression involves a level of empathy and consideration. Believing that cultures sprung from within a vacuum is detrimental in accepting that there are universal traits within us all that are unifying.

In order to open the space for discussion and inclusiveness, we must look anew on the writing of history and the perspectives that often evade public consciousness. Interdisciplinary and intercultural examination seems to me a rightful step towards greater understanding between peoples in the face of prevailing cultural divides. We must then pay mindful attention to the works, stories and perspectives of scholars, artists and writers outside of the usual roster.