In the second half of the twentieth century, an artistic tradition arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea of painting traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom. This derived from some seemingly inexplicable intersection of the age-old bellicose traditions of one of the most culturally remote areas of the world and twentieth-century comic book illustration, if not pop art—a phenomenon that art historian N. F. Karlins has referred to as pop tribal. The frequent text in English or in Tok Pisin on other examples—man ino save dai (man who cannot die) or man bilong pait (man of war)—only adds to the multicultural depth. Though these appear to be curiously syncretic objects to the Western eye, to the people of the Wahgi Valley they held deep meaning to the martial power of moral rectitude and the guidance of ancestral spirits.

A new book published in February 2021 by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney, Australia, and Jessica Lindsay Phillips of Toronto, Canada, is an exhaustive study of this tradition. Titled Man Who Cannot Die: Phantom Shields of the New Guinea Highlands, it features essays by a number of experts in the field, placing the shields within their historical, cultural, and cosmological contexts. A catalog section illustrates 105 examples from museum and private collections in North America, Europe, and the Antipodes, drawn from a research group of some 150 shields, which represent the majority of known examples.

Shield depicting The Phantom comic panels

Painted by John Wahgi, before 2008

Inscribed:

“The Phantom, masalai mountain bilong ol tumbuna
Stori b’long dispela seal. Dispela seal ol tumbuna bin yusim long trouble pait long 1969 long ples bilu ban, papa bilong dispela seal ol birua bin sutim spia na em dai pinis. Culture bilong jiwaka (jfc)”

Translation:

The Phantom, the spirit mountain of the ancestors.
Story of this shield. This shield was used by our ancestor in warfare in 1969 at the place called Bilu Ban, and the owner of this shield was speared by our enemy and he died.

Culture of Jiwaka (jfc)

Andane village, Wahgi Valley, Jiwaka Province, Papua New Guinea

Wood, pigment, metal, rattan, fiber, cassowary feathers. 154.9 (180.3 cm including feathers) x 61 cm.

Collected by Chris Boylan, Wahgi Valley, 2008.

Bert Collection, Toronto, Canada

Photo: Jessica Lindsay Phillips

 

Boylan field collected many of the known examples, and his chapter discusses the circumstances of their history, use, and discovery. Phillips helped place a remarkable number of the shields in collections in the Toronto area and beyond, and she writes about the acquisition and placement of these shields in Western collections. 

Other contributors include Kevin Patrick, the leading scholar on The Phantom, who describes the dissemination of the character throughout the Pacific region; psychologist Hubert Langmann, who addresses the psychological implications of The Phantom’s depiction on the shields; and comic collector Bruce Cree, who provides context about the history of The Phantom in comics. Editor in chief of Tribal Art magazine, Jonathan Fogel, edited the book and provides a foreword.  

Research for the book resulted in the identification of a number of different artists, distinguishable by their styles. Some of their names are known—the late Kaipel Ka of Banz township, for example—while others can be referred to only by distinguishing stylistic characteristics—the Ocher Painter or the Confident Line Painter. The catalog section is arranged to show the relationships of the various shields within these stylistic groups.

Shield depicting The Phantom standing with arms crossed

Inscribed: “Phantom” and “Man Who.. Can.. Not Die”

Wahgi Valley, probably Jiwaka Province, Papua New Guinea

Wood, natural pigment, commercial paint, fiber. Height: 170 cm.

Collected by Chris Boylan, Mount Hagen, 1999.

Ex Billy Jamieson, Toronto; Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers, Toronto, 2012; Galerie Flak, Paris.

Private collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above in 2017).

Photo courtesy of Galerie Flak, Paris

Man Who Cannot Die:
Phantom Shields of the New Guinea Highlands

Published in English by Boylan & Phillips, Sydney and Toronto

Release date: February 2021

Edited by Jonathan Fogel, with contributions by Chris Boylan, Bruce Cree, Hubert Langmann, Kevin Patrick, and Jessica Lindsay Phillips

23 x 32 cm, 296 pages, fully illustrated in color

ISBN-13: 978-1-7330078-1-8

Hardcover

$99 US plus shipping

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